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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.