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.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.