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.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.