Lynton Crosby, David Cameron and the old dog whistle test

David Cameron and George Osborne agree with Boris Johnson on one thing at least: the Tories should pay Lynton Crosby “whatever
he wants” to become their election strategist. So what is it about this rough-tongued Australian that so appeals to them?

Lynton Crosby, who ran Boris Johnson's 2008 and 2012 election campaigns. Illustration: Dan Murrell/New Statesman

It is not hard to imagine the torrent of disparaging comment that will break over the Tories if they put Lynton Crosby in charge of their 2015 election campaign. Many on the left would take the appointment of this rough-tongued Australian as proof that the Conservatives had “lurched to the right”. Crosby’s willingness to campaign on the issue of immigration, seen in elections he has run in both Australia and the UK, would be cited as proof of a disreputable urge to play the race card. Placing him in charge of the Tory machine would be treated as confirmation of a general coarsening, with the leadership adopting a narrow, retrograde and ultimately hopeless strategy of appealing to white-van man.

Nor is Crosby without his critics on the right. Peter Oborne, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, lamented that even though his appointment seems “almost inevitable”, it “would also mean a terrible defeat for everything that Cameron has stood for”, amount to “a public recantation” of the more generous approach adopted by the Conservatives after their general election defeat in 2005, and look “deeply inauthentic”.

Yet one might say the trouble with the whole Cameroon project is that it has seemed inauthentic. The manner of its leading exponents has often been so tentative as to suggest that even they do not really believe in what they are doing. This problem was exposed with embarrassing clarity during the 2010 general election campaign, which appeared to be based on the premise that David Cameron is a nicer man than Gordon Brown. As soon as Nick Clegg looked, on first gaining access to the nation’s living rooms through the leadership debates, as if he, too, might be nicer than Brown, the Tories were in trouble. They had no idea what they wanted to say. Veterans of that campaign recount with a shudder how, if in the space of a few days you’d asked four members of the Tory high command – George Osborne, Steve Hilton, Ed Llewellyn and Andy Coulson – to tell you the theme of the campaign, you’d have got four different answers.

Cameron and Osborne know that if they allow such a debacle to recur in 2015, their political careers will most likely be over. They are therefore desperate to obtain Crosby’s services, even though he worked with Michael Howard on the 2005 campaign, which ended in failure.

Ferocious discipline

So who is this highly prized but, to the wider public, still largely unknown Australian? He was born in 1957 in Kadina, South Australia, the youngest of a cereal farmer’s three children. Farming did not attract the young Crosby. He took a degree in economics from the University of Adelaide and, after standing once unsuccessfully for election in his own right, began work for Australia’s main right-wing party, the Liberals, in Queensland, where he swiftly rose through the ranks. His métier turned out to be winning elections for other people rather than himself. He is a witty, foul-mouthed, workaholic election addict, with deep insights into political strategy and a ruthless eye for the other side’s vulnerabilities: he likes nothing better than to peel voters away from opponents by forcing them to defend positions that will be unpopular with their own supporters. His appearance may be that of a nondescript man in his mid-fifties, but his talents have made him one of the most successful behind-the-scenes political operators of recent times. John Howard, who as Liberal Party leader won four successive general election victories in the period 1996- 2004, did so with Crosby at his side as his campaign manager.

If Crosby is to come and work again for the Tories, he wants to be paid a huge sum of money, to compensate him for the lucrative lobbying work he would otherwise be doing. He also insists on complete control of the campaign, including the polling that will help to inform it. This would have to be transferred from Populus – the company co-founded in 2003 by Andrew Cooper, Cameron’s present head of strategy – to Crosby|Textor, the company set up in 2002 by Crosby and his business partner Mark Textor. My expectation is that these demands will be met, which will dismay some of those who believe they are already doing perfectly good work for the Tories.

Michael Ashcroft, who used polling by Populus for Smell the Coffee, his study of what went wrong with the Tory campaign in 2005, has recently used the Conservative Home website, whose parent company  he owns, to declare: “I believe it would be a mistake to hire Lynton Crosby . . . I do not think he is needed and would become a distracting influence.”

Crosby could still refuse to work for the Tories. He has been known to say he is not going to rejoin the team, but my guess is that when it comes to it he will be unable to resist the temptation. Would this be the disaster that some so confidently predict? Nobody can know for sure how a campaign will turn out, but it would be foolish to count on Crosby getting things wrong. In the autumn of 2007, Boris Johnson’s first attempt to become Mayor of London was floundering, with critics suggesting that his eagerness to tell jokes betrayed a flippant amateurism that made him unfit to run a capital city. Osborne prevailed on Johnson to let Crosby take charge of his campaign.

The jokes ceased. For journalists covering the contest, this was an unwelcome development. We found ourselves cut off from our most reliable source of colour. For months at a time, it was impossible to get near Johnson. Crosby was subjecting him and the rest of the Tory team to the kind of ferocious discipline that used to be inflicted on languid recruits at the Guards Depot at Pirbright.

Johnson’s most recent biographer, Sonia Purnell, relates how, at his first dinner with Crosby, the candidate was told: “If you let us down, we’ll cut your fucking knees off.”
    
Before writing this piece I asked Johnson what it had been like having his campaign run by Crosby. He was “an absolutely brilliant campaign manager”, Johnson said. “I’ve never known anyone so good at motivating a campaign.” He had “a thing called the pink cardigan”, and “all these hordes of young people working for him”. At the end of each day, he would throw the pink cardigan to someone who had “monstered the Labour Party or done something particularly distinguished”.

Johnson recalled how, one evening, “I tottered to the end of a gruelling encounter with some Tory London councillors. I tried feebly to motivate them on various themes, and I was leaving them at about 9.30 at night, feeling rather wan about things, and I got a text from Lynton which said: ‘Crap speech, mate.’”

There is a bracing realism to Crosby’s style. He does not seek to evade inconvenient truths with English politeness. But I put it to Johnson that it was a pity Crosby had forced him to stop telling jokes. “This is all hysterical nonsense,” he said. “The awful truth is that the electorate won’t take you seriously unless you take yourself seriously. If you don’t take yourself seriously they don’t think you’re taking them seriously.”

Londoners reckoned Johnson was serious enough to elect as their mayor in 2008, and to re-elect for a second term in May this year when Labour had been well ahead in the polls. Some of the credit for turning Johnson into a professional belongs to Crosby, though Labour prefers to place all the blame for defeat on its candidate, Ken Livingstone.

Blow your own foghorn

Johnson told me the Tories should do “whatever it takes” to hire Crosby to run the 2015 campaign: “Push the boat out, break the piggy bank, kill the fatted calf.” One cannot help being struck by this rare example of Johnson agreeing with something that Cameron and Osborne want to do. The appointment would be popular on the Tory back benches, which assume Crosby would treat the Liberal Democrats far more roughly than Cameron has done. In the mayoral elections, he proved expert at harvesting Lib Dem votes for Johnson.

But what about Crosby’s first campaign for the Tories in the general election of 2005? To begin with, things went well. On 26 March 2005, Andrew Grice, in the Independent, wrote of Crosby: “Since the pre-election campaign began in January, he has helped the Tories to set the political agenda for a sustained period for the first time since Black Wednesday in 1992. He is credited with turning a rusty party machine into the Rolls-Royce it was in Margaret Thatcher’s heyday.”

But in his book The End of the Party, Andrew Rawnsley gives the liberal intelligentsia’s view of what happened next: “After a slick start that worried Labour, the heavy emphasis the Tories put on immigration made them look opportunistic, monomaniac and unattractive to centrist and floating voters. In a well-timed speech in Dover [delivered on 22 April 2005, Tony] Blair charged his opponents with seeking ‘to exploit people’s fears’ and skilfully punctured Howard’s posturing on the issue. ‘The Tory party have gone from being a One Nation party to being a one-issue party.’”

Michael Howard won 33 more seats than the Conservatives had got at the previous general election, but only 0.7 per cent more of the vote. He managed to scandalise the intelligentsia without gaining large new support from Labour voters who were indeed worried about immigration. Crosby denied after the campaign that he had used a “dog whistle” to send surreptitious messages: “It was more like a foghorn.” Whatever instrument it was, few voters obeyed its instructions.

Rupert Darwall, a former adviser to the chancellor Norman Lamont who worked for Crosby during that year, said the campaign “didn’t come off because the Conservatives didn’t have an economic policy”. There was a boom, and Gordon Brown’s reputation as chancellor was still intact. Like Johnson, however,
Darwall has the highest respect for Crosby. “I’ve never come across such a good manager,” he told me. “He inspires the people working for him. He selects people he trusts and he doesn’t micromanage. The irredeemable sin is screwing up and not telling him.”

On being asked what economic policy Crosby would wish to pursue in the 2015 campaign, Darwall said: “He would reconfirm the view that getting control of borrowing is crucial. Normal people don’t buy the Keynesian thing that to get borrowing down you have to borrow more. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls would have a very hard time. I think Lynton Crosby would be a nightmare for Miliband.”

When I protested that commending deficit reduction for month after month with workaholic discipline sounded dull, Darwall replied: “It is disappointing for the media. It is not disappointing for the people who work in the campaign.”

Crosby’s partner Mark Textor has expressed their contempt for much of what appears in the media. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald this summer, he argued: “Most is borderline trivial, certainly irrelevant. But that has never discouraged the commentators.”

One of John Howard’s strengths, in the victorious campaigns he waged with Crosby’s assistance, was his ability to say things that antagonised the Australian intelligentsia but appealed to ordinary Australians. In 1996, Howard defeated the Labor leader Paul Keating, an eloquent figure much admired by the intellectual elite, by appealing instead to core Labor voters who became known as “Howard’s battlers”. Howard carried conviction by choosing what looked like big challenges – a major tax reform, for instance – and sticking with them rather than cutting and running. His opponents will never forgive the ruthless way he exploited the question of immigration in the election of 2001. Howard was not charismatic, but he convinced voters that he had the Australian national interest at heart.

Senior Cameroons hope Crosby can work out how to appeal to the “strivers” identified by the Prime Minister in his speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham last month. These Tories recognise that one speech does not constitute a campaign, and are confident that Crosby has the professionalism needed to construct the latter. A close observer compared No 10 to a country house where everyone is very friendly and polite but no one knows who is in charge, nor even whose job it is to do the washing-up.

Almost everyone is fed up with this situation. The Tories want to be told what they need to do to win the next general election, and they think Crosby can tell them.

Crosby naturally refused to talk to me before I wrote this profile. He said he is not running for anything and is sick of being misrepresented by British journalists. I did, however, manage to have an enjoyable and illuminating talk with him last December, when I was updating my biography of Boris Johnson. It was clear that he had a keen understanding of his candidate’s strengths, and of the need to stop Livingstone from turning this year’s mayoral election into a straight Labour-Tory fight. Johnson did not emerge from that campaign as a horrible right-wing extremist, but as a person some Labour voters in London felt comfortable about supporting.

At the end of our conversation, Crosby presented me with a Boris Johnson campaign mug. I remarked that when I got it home, my wife, who is a Labour councillor in London, might well smash it. He thereupon gave me a Boris Johnson umbrella, saying as he did so: “This’ll really piss her off.”

Here is a man who delights in provoking Labour. The cleverest way to oppose him might be to be very nice about him. I am not sure he would know how to deal with that.

Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)