Crosby denies ever discussing tobacco policy with Cameron

But why didn't the PM answer himself?

David Cameron has refused at least 16 times to say whether he has ever discussed tobacco policy with Lynton Crosby, leading to the natural suspicion that he has. For Cameron, the perception that the government's stance on plain cigarette packaging could have been shaped by a man whose company's clients include tobacco behemoth Philip Morris was a damaging one. But the Conservative strategist has now issued his own unambiguous denial. He said: 

The Prime Minister has repeatedly and clearly said that I have never lobbied him on anything, including on the issue of tobacco or plain packaging of cigarettes.

What the PM said should be enough for any ordinary person but to avoid any doubt or speculation let me be clear. At no time have I had any conversation or discussion with or lobbied the Prime Minister, or indeed the Health Secretary or the health minister, on plain packaging or tobacco issues.

Indeed, any claim that I have sought to improperly use my position as part-time campaign adviser to the Conservative Party is simply false.

The hope among the Tories is that this will draw a line under the story (and they've certainly picked a good day to bury it) but the question remains: why didn't Cameron answer himself? Is his definition of a "conversation or discussion" different to Crosby's? Until the PM personally says that he's never "discussed" the issue with his strategist, suspicion is likely to persist. 

Update: As expected, Labour has responded by drawing attention to Cameron's refusal to personally deny that he discussed tobacco policy with Crosby. The party has also noted that Crosby has said nothing about "any of the other policy areas" where he has business interests and has called for him to publish his company's full client list.

Here's the full statement from Michael Dugher: 

This baffling statement raises more questions than it answers. David Cameron has refused to deny that he has had a conversation with Lynton Crosby about tobacco policy on at least 16 occasions. If Lynton Crosby is telling the truth, why on earth couldn't David Cameron say this himself?

The fact remains that David Cameron chose to bring a tobacco lobbyist into the heart of his Government, changed his policy on cigarette packaging and was then unable to give a straight answer about Lynton Crosby's influence. It's yet another example of David Cameron standing up for the wrong people.

It's striking that while Lynton Crosby has specifically denied discussing tobacco with the Prime Minister, he has said nothing about alcohol policy, or any of the other policy areas where his reported clients have interests. In the interests of transparency, Lynton Crosby needs to disclose his company's full client list right now.

The line from Downing Street, meanwhile, is that Cameron didn't want to get draw into a "running commentary" on what conversations he has and hasn't had with his strategist. But Crosby's intervention today has set a notable precedent. If he's to avoid further scrutiny, it's likely that he'll be forced to relinquish his business interests sooner rather than later. 

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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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.