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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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.