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.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.