David Cameron doesn’t like being asked if he discussed government plans for plain cigarette packaging with his campaign strategist Lynton Crosby. He maintains that he was not “lobbied” on the subject. In an interview on the BBC’s Marr show this morning, he added that Crosby does not formally advise on that kind of issue and didn’t “intervene.” Cameron’s critics are quick to point out how carefully those words are chosen. They don’t amount to a denial that the two men talked about the measure.
It is Crosby who is reported to have advised the Prime Minister to “get the barnacles off the boat” - stripping away from the Tory agenda anything that gets in the way of the core message. That requires jettisoning most policy that isn't dealing with the deficit, controlling immigration and reforming welfare. On those terms, legislating for plain cigarette packaging was an obvious barnacle.
Labour’s contention is that Crosby’s main line of work is lobbying – he is currently contracted to do just one day a week in Downing Street – that his big money clients have included Philip Morris, who would prefer to shift tobacco in non-plain packaging, and that, by extension Cameron has imported a whopping conlfict of interest into the heart of government. The dots are close enough to be joined by anyone predisposed to think the worst of the Prime Minister (and he has form when it comes to careless appointments). But there is not, as Tory MPs are eager to point out, a “smoking gun.”
Most Conservatives insist that Labour are wasting their time hammering away at the Crosby connection. The man is neither famous nor important enough to justify so much opposition energy, say MPs. The attacks, insist Tory spinners, look desperate and indicate that Ed Miliband is running out of political ammunition.
Yet Cameron looks tetchy when asked about the connection. In his Marr interview he ended up closing down the exchange with a blunt refusal to indulge the line of questioning any further. “That’s the answer you are getting,” he said. When a politician is more confident of his position he can filibuster indefinitely until the interviewer feels obliged to move on. Cameron’s inability to deploy that technique here suggests vulnerability. The Prime Minister doesn’t do a big Sunday morning interview to be asked about his staffing arrangements and whether he takes policy dictation from shadowy agents of corporate influence. That sort of chatter gets in the way of his core message. Crosby's commercial interests are not the most pressing issue facing the nation but they are still relevant to his role as a senior Downing Street advisor, which is why it was suddenly announced last week that he would stop work for other clients at the end of the year. That it had to be said at all indicates some recognition that the great master strategist is himself in danger of becoming a barnacle on Cameron's boat.