The Paxman strategy: why Labour should keep asking Cameron the Lynton Crosby question

Whether Cameron is prepared to say whether he discussed tobacco policy with his campaign strategist is turning into a test of his honesty and integrity.

Why has David Cameron refused at least 12 times to say whether he has ever discussed tobacco policy with Lynton Crosby? The answer, presumably, is because he has. But were he to admit as much, he would stand accused of tolerating an unambiguous conflict of interest. In addition to advising the Conservatives on campaign strategy (with some success judging by the latest opinion polls), Crosby remains managing director of Crosby Textor, the lobbying firm he co-founded in 2003, whose clients include tobacco behemoth Philip Morris. For this reason, asked whether he has ever had "a conversation" with Crosby about plain cigarette packaging, Cameron has dodged and obfuscated, bobbed and weaved. 

There are some who argue, as John Rentoul does, that, in the absence of irrefutable proof of corruption ("smoking gun" is apt here), Labour should call off the chase. After all, few voters know who Crosby is and even fewer care. But there are good reasons why Labour should ignore such appeals. Whether or not Cameron is prepared to say if he discussed tobacco policy with Crosby is turning into a significant test of his honesty and integrity (an issue the public certainly is interested in). Few voters really cared whether Michael Howard threatened to overrule prisons director general Derek Lewis (the subject of his famous duel with Jeremy Paxman); it was his evasiveness that irked them. Having previously declared that "sunlight is the best disinfectant", Cameron cannot continue to deflect the media's inquiries without exposing himself to the charge of hypocrisy.

Even better for Labour, the responses of other government figures have increased Cameron's vulnerability. We were told by Jeremy Hunt that public health was a "whole area he [Crosby] is not allowed to touch" due to his "clients in that area" but also by Downing Street that Cameron was "unware" of Crosby's work for Philip Morris. Did he ask to see a full list of Crosby's clients before hiring him last November? It would appear not. The expectation among Conservatives may be that Crosby will relinquish his other business interests when he becomes a full-time adviser early next year and that "the questions about his other clients will become a feature of the past", but until that moment, Labour should keep up the hunt. 

Here, collated by Labour, are Cameron's 12 dodges. 

Dodge 1

 

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.

David Cameron, Hansard, 19 June 2013 Column 891

 

Dodge 2

 

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

 

Dodge 3

 

Edward Miliband: Can he now answer the question that he has not answered for weeks: has he ever had a conversation with Lynton Crosby about plain cigarette packaging?

The Prime Minister: I have answered the question: he has never lobbied me on anything.

Hansard, 17 July, column 1088

 

Dodge 4

 

Nick Robinson: You hired a man who also is paid for by a tobacco firm, aren’t voters entitled to a clear rather than a legalistic answer, have you ever discussed the subject of tobacco packaging with Lynton Crosby?

David Cameron: Thank you, on the issue of Lynton Crosby this is a complete red herring which is raised by the Labour Party because they are in political trouble and I can’t believe the BBC will fall for it. The decision not to go ahead for the time being with plain paper packaging for cigarettes, a decision taken by me, with the health secretary for the very simple reason that there isn’t yet sufficient evidence for it and there is considerable legal uncertainty about it. If we get more evidence and if we can reduce the legal uncertainty then it may well be a good idea and I’ll very happily look at it again, it is a decision made by me without any reference to any lobbyist or anyone else, this is complete nonsense from start to finish put up, as I say because the Labour Party, as demonstrated in the House of Commons today is in, I think, some quite deep political trouble with their relationship with the Trade Unions.

Downing Street press conference, 17 July 2013

 

Dodge 5

 

Nick Robinson: Did you have a conversation?

David Cameron: As I said I’ve never been lobbied by Lynton Crosby about anything it is not his job to advise on any policies or policy areas.

Downing Street press conference, 17 July 2013

 

Dodge 6

 

Lucy Manning: Can I also ask you about lobbying: you said you weren’t lobbied by Lynton Crosby but can you answer this word, did you discuss tobacco packaging, the word discuss.

David Cameron: Look, I’ve been very clear about this; Lynton Crosby is employed by the Conservative Party to advise us on political strategy and dealing with Labour and the rest of it. He does not advise on government policies and he has not lobbied me on any government policies – I’ve been very clear about that. This whole issue is a red herring because Labour are in trouble with the trade unions so they’re desperate to find some sort of distraction therapy, but I don’t think anybody should fall for it … least of all ITN!

ITN, 18 July 2013

 

Dodge 7

 

Lucy Manning: Tony Blair said he was a straight guy when he had problems with the tobacco industry, I guess you’re a straight guy, did you discuss tobacco packaging?

David Cameron: Tony Blair is actually a pretty good example. Tony Blair is actually someone who does lobby me from time-to-time. He lobbies me on things like the Middle East peace process. Do I have to know who all Tony Blair’s other clients are? If I did that I don’t think I’ve got enough paper in my office to write them all down on.

ITN, 18 July 2013

 

Dodge 8

 

David Cameron: My view is very simple: Lynton Crosby is employed by the Conservative Part as a political adviser. He advises on political strategy, how to combat Labour, how to prepare for the election. Decisions on policy he has no influence or impact and doesn’t lobby on. Those decisions on policy are made by me. Let me deal…

Channel 4, 18 July 2013

 

Dodge 9

 

Gary Gibbon: I don’t feel that you’ve answered the question… There were conversations with Lynton Crosby in the room, weren’t there, in which the question of what bills should go into the Queen’s Speech was discussed. Scraping barnacles…

David Cameron: I don’t accept that for one moment, no. I don’t accept that for one moment but I mean, I’ve been very clear. I don’t accept what you’ve said for one moment, but I’ve been very clear because I think people need to know this: here is this person, employed by the Conservative Party who gives assistance on political advice, he does not lobby. He has no role in deciding what policies go ahead and what policies don’t go ahead. He has no role in that at all. On plain packaging, let me be absolutely clear – because this is important, I want people to know this: on plain packaging for cigarettes, I think this idea does have merit and I think there may well be a time for it. But, I took the decision, with the Health Secretary that the time was not now…

Channel 4, 18 July 2013

 

Dodge 10

 

Gary Gibbon: And he never discussed it with you?

David Cameron: For very good reasons, entirely my decision. I haven’t discussed this issue with, you know, outside government. I remember a business, at some meeting I went to raising it with me, but you know, the decision was mine, and let me explain this, because actually what really matters is what’s the decision, why is the decision made. The decision was made because there is too much legal uncertainty surrounding this issue as we stand today and there isn’t enough positive evidence. As I explained in the House of Commons yesterday that was the reason the last government decided not to go ahead, for the time being with this issue. So, that is, I think a very, very clear explanation, but a decision made by me. If you don’t like the decision you should blame me, or you should blame the Health Secretary, but we haven’t been lobbied by anybody about this.

Channel 4, 18 July 2013

 

Dodge 11

 

Gary Gibbon: That wasn’t the question, the question was – and you keep denying a question that isn’t asked – the question was: did Lynton Crosby, in the room during a strategy meeting, say actually, some of these bits of legislation rather clutter up the business of government and the focus of government, and maybe we’d be better to focus on other things?

David Cameron: Well, no, he hasn’t … I don’t recognise the conversation that you are putting forward at all, right. I’ve been very careful about what I’ve said, which is to say that he hasn’t lobbied me on any of these issues and that is absolutely the case. So, the decisions are my decisions, the government’s decisions. You’re trying to invent a set of conversations that somehow you think took place.

Channel 4, 18 July 2013

 

Dodge 12

 

Gary Gibbon: I was trying to throw some sunlight – the best disinfectant as you called it – so, we’re quite clear: he never discussed this bill with you?

David Cameron: I’ve answered the question very, very clearly. I’ve not been lobbied by Lynton Crosby on any of these issues.

Channel 4, 18 July 2013

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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage