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30 June 2023

Sunak’s clash with Zac Goldsmith shows how badly he’s played his partygate hand

The Tory peer, a steadfast ally of Boris Johnson, has been allowed to exit on his own terms.

By Zoë Grünewald

Zac Goldsmith today dramatically quit as a minister in the Foreign Office. In his resignation letter, the Conservative peer attacked Rishi Sunak’s “apathy” on climate change.

Goldsmith said he was “horrified” that the UK had “abandoned” key environmental commitments, including the rolling back of £11.6bn of climate aid. “The problem is not that the government is hostile to the environment, it is that you, our Prime Minister, are simply uninterested,” Goldsmith said.

Why might Goldsmith have chosen this moment to leave? He was one of several Boris Johnson allies singled out by the Privileges Committee this week for trying to undermine its inquiry into whether the former prime minister misled parliament. Goldsmith, who was honoured by Johnson in 2020, had reposted a claim on Twitter that the investigation was a “witch hunt”, and added “there was only ever going to be one outcome and the evidence was totally irrelevant to it”.

After this verdict, Sunak’s spokesperson told journalists that he had full confidence in his minister. But the Prime Minister’s reply to the resignation letter revealed something else: “You were asked to apologise for your comments about the Privileges Committee… [but] you have decided to take a different course.” The PM also defended the government’s record on the environment, saying: “We can be proud of the UK’s record as a world-leader on net zero.”

Sunak’s intention was to undermine Goldsmith’s attack by referring to the timing of his resignation. But the row did not end there. Goldsmith then claimed on Twitter that his resignation was not in any way related to the Johnson partygate report. He wrote that he was “happy to apologise for publicly sharing my views on the Privilege Committee [sic]” but that “my decision to step down has been a long time coming”. He claimed to have “tried hard” to “build upon a strong UK record of international environmental leadership” which had become “significantly harder on [Sunak’s] watch”.

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This back and forth hints at a deeper rift, one that may unnerve Sunak. Goldsmith is a long-standing Johnsonite with a long list of political connections. Where many of Johnson’s previous supporters have backed away quietly, Goldsmith has come out on the front foot. And he could well make life more difficult for Sunak’s government in the House of Lords.

Given Sunak has devoted much time to improving Britain’s reputation on the world stage, Goldsmith’s attack feels targeted. The Prime Minister has struggled to cut through to voters since taking office, though his successes include the Windsor framework on trade in Northern Ireland in February, tech and trade deals with the US, and a close relationship with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Goldsmith’s assertion that the UK’s international reputation was being damaged “as a result” of Sunak’s disinterest in environmental leadership is likely to sting.

Sunak may have hoped his initial response to the resignation would make him look strong, assertively facing down a Johnson ally. But the PM’s approach throughout partygate and its fallout has been to avoid getting publicly drawn in. Perhaps it’s because he himself was fined for attending a gathering during lockdown – but it is more likely that Sunak is desperate to move on from the chaos.

His decision to publicly stand by his minister while asking him to apologise privately has harmed him, because Goldsmith has been able to choose the terms of his exit. It may be a result Johnson is only too happy with.

[See also: Who killed Thames Water?]

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