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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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