Questions for Cameron over Lynton Crosby's links to alcohol and tobacco firms

After minimum alcohol pricing and plain cigarette packaging are dropped from the Queen's Speech, Labour and Tory MPs point to the election chief's connections.

As notable as what is in today's Queen's Speech is what isn't. Despite repeated promises by ministers, the speech will not include a bill enshrining the government's commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on aid in law, nor, to the dismay of public heath campaigners, will there be any mention of minimum alcohol pricing or plain cigarette packaging. Only gay marriage survives as an emblem of Cameroon modernisation. 

Conservative MPs attribute this strategic shift to Lynton Crosby, the Tories' recently appointed campaign strategist, who speaks of scraping the "barnacles off the boat". By this, the hard-nosed Australian means dispensing with namby-pamby measures of little concern to the average voter (such as minimum  pricing and plain packaging) and focusing on people's core concerns: the economy, immigration, education and welfare reform.

But could Crosby's motives go beyond the merely political? As the Daily Mirror reports, the strategy chief's PR and lobbying firm Crosby Textor has long-standing links with the alcohol and tobacco industries. The company was on a retainer with British American Tobacco when cigarette companies fought the introduction of plain packaging by the Australian government and Crosby was federal director of the Liberal Party when it accepted large donations from the industry. Crosby Textor Fullbrook, the UK arm of the firm, has represented tobacco companies since the 1980s. 

The company's links with the alcohol industry are no less notable. The Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia, which campaigned against minimum alcohol pricing, is listed as a client of Crosby Textor in a New South Wales register of lobbyists. The trade body includes multinational companies such as Diageo and Bacardi, currently lobbying against a price floor in the UK. 

With minimum alcohol pricing and plain cigarette packaging both abandoned in quick succession, some in Westminster are beginning to smell a rat. Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said: "Two public health policies have been dropped since Lynton Crosby arrived. David Cameron needs to come clean about whether Crosby had any involvement in these decisions. From the outside it looks very much like a right-wing lobbyist is dictating the coalition’s public health policy."

Downing Street has so far refused to say whether it was aware of Crosby's links to the alcohol and tobacco industries and what role he played in the decision to abandon the measures. But it isn't just Labour that is sounding the alarm. Sarah Wollaston, the independent-minded Conservative MP for Totnes, and a former GP, tweeted the Mirror's story with the accompanying words: "Why we desperately need an effective register of lobbyists.

Convenient, then, that a statutory register of lobbyists is another of the "barnacles" that Crosby has scraped off the boat. 

Lynton Crosby, who was recently appointed as the Conservatives' election campaign manager after running Boris Johnson's re-election campaign.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.