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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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

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