Lynton Crosby: the questions Cameron needs to answer

Five days after the government postponed the introduction of plain cigarette packaging, the Tories' campaign strategist remains the story.

When Lynton Crosby was named as the Conservatives' campaign strategist last November, former Tory donor and deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft wrote in a 'helpful' memo to the Australian: 

Finally, I know you understand as much as anyone that it’s never a good thing when the adviser is the story. That being the case, I’m sure you’ll get on with the job and stay out of the limelight. 

While Crosby certainly has got on with the job, to the benefit of the Tories' poll ratings, he has become the story. Five days after the government announced that it had postponed plans to introduce plain cigarette packaging, the questions over Crosby's influence on the decision keep coming. On last night's Newsnight, Jeremy Hunt said that Crosby, whose company's clients include tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris, had never lobbied him or David Cameron "on issues to do with public health" and that it was a "whole area he is not allowed to touch", adding: "It is quite right he shouldn't because his company has clients in that area." 

But unfortunately for the Tories, these reponses only invite further scrutiny. With the publication of the government's lobbying bill today, Ed Miliband and Labour have a chance to challenge Cameron on the subject at today's PMQs, the final session before the summer recess. Here are some questions they might want to ask. 

Did you ask to see a list of Crosby's clients before hiring him?

If, as Hunt suggests, Crosby's business interests could create a conflict of interest, it is reasonable to challenge Cameron on whether he asked to see a list of his clients before employing him last November. A government spokesman admitted at the weekend that Cameron had been "unaware" that his strategist worked for Philip Morris but refused to say whether the Prime Minister had seen a list of Crosby Textor clients. 

Have you ever discussed alcohol or tobacco policy with Crosby?

To date, Cameron has merely said that Crosby has never "lobbied" him, refusing to deny that the pair have discussed government policy on alcohol and tobacco. Here's how he responded to two questions from Labour MPs on the subject. 

Mr Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): I wrote to the Prime Minister on 8 May and I have not yet received a reply. May I ask him now whether he has had any discussions with Lynton Crosby about the standard packaging of cigarettes or the minimum price of a unit of alcohol—yes or no?

The Prime Minister: I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that Lynton Crosby has never lobbied me on anything.

Hansard, 19 June 2013, column 891

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Further to the question that the Prime Minister failed to answer last week, can he confirm that he has never had a conversation with Lynton Crosby about alcohol pricing or cigarettes? The question is not “Has he been lobbied?”, but “Has he had that conversation?”

The Prime Minister: As I said last week, I have never been lobbied by Lynton Crosby about anything.

Hansard, 26 June 2013, column 297

Did Crosby's advice to "get the barnacles off the boat" include plain cigarette packaging?

The line from Conservative chairman Grant Shapps is that "Crosby advises the Conservative Party on political strategy; he doesn't advise on policy" but as he well knows, the distinction is not always a clear one. While it's unlikely that Crosby was so careless as to lobby Cameron directly on tobacco policy, he is known to have advised him to "get the barnacles off the boat". By this, the hard-nosed Australian is said to mean dispensing with extraneous measures that distract the government from voters' core concerns: the economy, immigration, education and welfare reform. Were plain cigarette packaging and minimum alcohol pricing (both of which were dropped from the Queen's Speech) among those he had in mind?

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, a former GP who has campaigned for both measures, suggested last night that it was "simply untrue" to claim that Crosby had no influence on policy. 

Will Crosby be forced to disclose his clients on the forthcoming register of lobbyists?

Crosby Textor does not publicly disclose its clients, which are known to have included alcohol and tobacco companies, but will it be forced to do so under the new lobbyists' register established by today's legislation? Wollaston declared last night that "to retain any credibility on lobbying, Cameron must postpone statement on minimum pricing until we know whether CTF [Crosby Textor Fullbrook] has big alcohol clients". 

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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.