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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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