A barnacle named Lynton

The Tories say Labour are wasting their time attacking the PM's campaign strategist. Well, they would, wouldn't they.

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.

Crosby famously advises getting "barnacles off the boat."

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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