The Zac Pack: the well-connected group quietly shaping Tory policy

The well-connected group quietly shaping Tory policy

5 February 2022

9:00 AM

5 February 2022

9:00 AM

Who let the dogs out? That’s the subject of a Whitehall probe into the recent Afghanistan debacle. When the Taliban took Kabul, an estimated 1,200 people who qualified for evacuation to the UK had to be left behind. But on 28 August, waiting Afghan families were left helpless on the ground as 173 cats and dogs were escorted past them into the airport and off to safety. The big question: on whose authority were animals put ahead of humans? And did any of this have the Prime Minister’s backing?

As ever with Johnsonian drama, the truth is elusive, but one minister seems closer to it than others. A parliamentary investigation unearthed an email from Zac Goldsmith’s ministerial team within the Foreign Office declaring that the PM had ‘authorised’ the animal evacuation. The minister continues to deny responsibility. But it fits with messages from Trudy Harrison, the PM’s then parliamentary private secretary, offering round-the-clock advice to those leading the animal rescue mission. So what does Goldsmith know? And what, if anything, does this tell us about the Johnson operation?

The affair also raises questions about the role of Carrie Johnson, the Prime Minister’s wife. Her friend Dominic Dyer, an animal welfare campaigner, was involved in the Afghan pet rescue and boasted at the time he had ‘no doubt that Carrie was in on this as well’. It was instantly denied. Understandably so: it was an incendiary claim, suggesting that Mrs Johnson was part of a powerful but informal group quietly shaping Tory policy and (in this case) military strategy. It’s too ludicrous to be true. Isn’t it?

Zac Goldsmith occupies his own stratum in the Tory hierarchy. He’s stonkingly rich (he is probably worth more than half the cabinet members put together) and when he lost his seat to the Lib Dems in the 2019 election he was quickly ennobled and shifted his brief to the Lords. He is a minister not just at the Foreign Office but at Defra, where he helps shape environmental policy and pursues his high-regulation agenda. To some free-trade ministers he forms part of a protectionist ‘axis of evil’. He’d call it standards.

Goldsmith, now 47, is the original vote-blue, go-green Tory; a millionaire who saw conservatism and environmentalism as bedfellows long before David Cameron started to champion the idea. Animal welfare has always been part of his conservationist package. Cameron helped him secure a place in parliament, winning his home constituency of Richmond Park in 2010. But Goldsmith always had his own, green agenda. Soon after taking his seat, he hired an ambitious young woman to help him forge his path: Carrie Symonds, now Mrs Johnson.

When he resigned as a Tory MP in protest at the Heathrow expansion and stood as an independent, it was controversial among Tories. But not with Carrie. She ran his 2017 re-election campaign and among those out leafleting were her friends and future power-brokers Henry Newman and Josh Grimstone. As so often in politics, the friendship circle moved upwards together. Newman is now a senior adviser at No. 10; Grimstone is Michael Gove’s right-hand man.

There is something of a ‘Zac Pack’ at the heart of government. Goldsmith’s former council leader, Nick True, serves alongside him in the Lords, while True’s daughter Sophia works in No. 10 (as does her fiancé, Declan Lyons). Then there’s Ben Elliot, the impeccably connected nephew of Camilla Parker Bowles and incumbent Tory party co-chairman. When the Prime Minister’s wife wanted some expensive new wallpaper for No. 10 in the now-notorious redecoration, the establishment fixer was there to help.

Elliot has spoken in the past about how his life has been ‘intertwined’ with that of Goldsmith, a fellow Old Etonian whom he has known since childhood. Elliot’s parents were best friends with Lady Annabel Goldsmith; the boys started prep school together. Boris himself boasts ‘a longstanding personal friendship’ with Zac, who let the Johnson family stay for free at his £25,000-a-week holiday home in Marbella in October: just rewards for the man who gave him his peerage and first ministerial job. As with so much in Goldsmith’s life, the ties are ancestral: his uncle Teddy was a friend to and fellow eco-enthusiast of Johnson’s father Stanley.

Many on the right fear that the environmental agenda clouds Johnson’s focus. Goldsmith’s fellow peer David Frost suggested last week that No. 10 is in hoc to a ‘woke’ green lobby. The Prime Minister has previously been happy to indulge such a faction, as part of his preference to run his administration as a series of competing courts. But now, mired in scandal, his hand may be forced to engage in some bloodletting. Some in Johnson’s party want an overhaul on policy, with net-zero initiatives sidelined until cost of living pressures are lifted.

For Goldsmith, the trade-off is false; ‘vote blue, go green’ was never just a slogan for him. The peer’s belief in conservation is sincere, hereditary and central to his political mission. His tycoon father Jimmy nurtured his interest with a copy of Ancient Futures, a classic text on the dangers of globalisation. Zac later recalled: ‘He scribbled in the cover “This will change your life”. And it did.’ In the words of activist Derek Wall, ‘Green politics in Britain is branded with the Goldsmith logo and fertilised by Goldsmith seed funds.’ Zac’s uncle Teddy helped found the Ecologist, which Zac went on to edit, and the People party, a forerunner to the modern Greens. Environmentalism and Euroscepticism were the two causes of Jimmy Goldsmith in his final years, and both were taken up by Zac with relish.

For the past half-century, the fortunes of the Goldsmiths have been linked to both the Aspinall and Birley clans. These three fabulously wealthy families have long been influential in the Conservative party, with shared interests in animal welfare and greenery. Goldsmith’s half-brother Robin Birley owns 5 Hertford Street, a fashionable political hangout. Until recently Zac served as a trustee of the Aspinall Foundation, a conservation charity. Its head of communications is Carrie Johnson.

Ben Goldsmith has meanwhile served on the board of his brother Zac’s department Defra since 2018, having turned the moribund Conservative Environment Network into a powerhouse over the past decade. Its ideas become Tory policy with striking speed. Some 120 MPs and peers are involved in the caucus, and it has something of a revolving door with Defra, where two of its alumni now work as special advisers.

There is one final piece in this green machinery. When the pet rescue was activated, Dyer boasted — perhaps unwisely — about the involvement of a group of Tory activists. ‘Carrie Johnson took the message forward,’ he said, ‘not just through me but through the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation.’ This Foundation has, as its patrons, both Zac Goldsmith and Mrs Johnson — as well as Stanley, the Prime Minister’s omnipresent father.

Was this group, between them, capable of giving a helping hand to the team behind the Afghan pet rescue? Absolutely. Did they? That’s a question for the inquiry. Goldsmith, for his part, has said that he did not speak to the Prime Minister about the affair. But he wouldn’t need to. He has far better connections.

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