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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.