Why Labour and the Lib Dems should be lining up to praise Lynton Crosby

Both parties’ interests lie in the Conservatives' campaign strategist sticking around. He can't win over the liberal voters the Tories need for victory.

Following on from the cigarette packaging imbroglio, in which it was alleged that Lynton Crosby might just have lobbied the Prime Minster about the way that tobacco was sold and enacted a shift in government policy, another Crosby-related scandal has hit the headlines. This one centres on whether or not the Conservative campaign strategist tried to influence the future of the NHS. Of course, Labour has pounced on these morsels, demanding Cameron deliver Crosby's head. But while the desire to make short-term hay over the scandals might be irresistible (and has thus far been treated that way by both Labour and the Lib Dems), those parties who will be fighting the Tories come 2015 should think carefully about long-term strategy.

There is every danger that the current calls for Crosby to be sacked may result in that very event taking place, which would then allow the Conservatives to hire someone to run their general election campaign in a way that would give them at least half a chance of winning. 

Shane Warne once said of England leg spinner Monty Panesar that Monty hadn’t played in 33 test matches – he’d played the same test match 33 times. The same is true of the way Crosby runs election campaigns. They all flow from the same idea that everyone, secretly, deep down, is extremely right-wing and reactionary, and all that’s needed to bring it out is a little healthy nudging via an air war. To be fair to him, this sort of thing has worked in Australia, where he won four successive victories for the Liberal Party (who are perhaps the most misnamed political party in history. The core of their beliefs revolve around social conservatism. It would be like the Greens deciding to rebrand themselves as the Oil Industry Lobby Party). But I think it will be a disaster for the Tories in 2015. If you look at their target seats – Lab-Con marginals in the midlands, Con-Lib marginals in the south west – it would hand the parties they would be facing a gift. Vote Tory, Get Loony.

In the spring of 2008, I dined with a Tory friend who spent most of the meal espousing how the recent financial crash was an opportunity for Cameron to modernise the Conservatives, to run in the next general election on a platform of fiscal conservatism combined with a social liberalism that reflected modern Britain. I replied that while the opportunity was certainly there, Cameron would always remain too scared of the right of his party, the Bill Cashes and Peter Bones of this world, to go fully in any sort of liberal direction, a prediction that proved correct. I joked to my friend that night, "Maybe one day Cameron will even hire Lynton Crosby to run a general election campaign for him". My Tory friend laughed as if that was the least likely thing possible. How times change.

So beware, o ye lefties, about what you wish for. The Tories are headed for disaster with Crosby at the helm. Calling for them to change course may make them do just that.

Lynton Crosby, who was recently appointed as the Conservatives' election campaign manager after running Boris Johnson's re-election campaign.

Nick Tyrone is Chief Executive of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.