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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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.