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.

Getty Images
Show Hide image

Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war