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.
I've seen how election strategists drive current policy & simply untrue to suggest otherwise. It's why we must know who else pays them
— Sarah Wollaston MP (@drwollastonmp) July 16, 2013
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".