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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

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