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.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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