Cameron challenged over Lynton Crosby's business links after plain cigarette packaging is shelved

Labour and Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston argue that the Tory strategist, whose company has close links to the tobacco industry, is to blame for the decision.

Rarely has there been a clearer example of successful lobbying than the government's decision to abandon the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes. The measure was overwhelmingly supported by the public (by 59%-25%) and by GPs but the tobacco industry's political muscle proved decisive. 

In reponse, Labour is again challenging David Cameron to say what conversations he has had with Tory campaign strategist Lynton Crosby on the subject. Diane Abbott, the shadow public health minister, has just issued the statement below.

The Tories used to say there were in favour of this policy, that children should be protected. But now, not long after employing Lynton Crosby, a strategist linked to lobbying in the tobacco industry, David Cameron is backing down.

People will rightly wonder if the Government is breaking its promise, despite the medical evidence and the wishes of British families, in order to please its friends in big business. David Cameron needs to explain why he’s doing it, when he decided, whether Lynton Crosby had any input into the decision, and whether he was aware of Lynton Crosby’s alleged business interests when he appointed him.

As I've previously reported, Crosby's PR and lobbying firm Crosby Textor has long-standing links with the tobacco industry. 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 independent-minded Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, a former GP who has long campaigned for the policy, is another who detects the hand of Crosby at work. As she suggested this morning, the abandoment of plain packaging is strong evidence that Cameron has been swayed by Crosby's call to scrape the "barnacles off the boat". By this, the hard-nosed Australian means dispensing with such effette measures (minimum alcohol pricing similarly falls into this category) and focusing on the "core concerns" of the economy, immigration and welfare reform. 

To date, Cameron has merely said that Crosby has "never lobbied" him but has refused to confirm whether the pair discussed the issue of plain packaging. Expect Labour's health team to take every opportunity to challenge him to give a definitive answer. 

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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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