Lynton Crosby, received wisdom has it, is something of a wizard. The bruiser of an electoral genius who put former Australian PM John Howard in the top office, and helped Boris “£250k is chickenfeed” Johnson win the mayoralty in a traditionally Labour London bleeding under Austerity.
The fact that he failed to spin similar magic for Michael Howard at the 2005 election in a particularly nasty campaign is usually — and conveniently — left out of this estimation, but it’s hard to argue that his co-option for David Cameron’s ailing and divided Conservative Party hasn’t given the rank and file footsoldiers a little more confidence.
So when they harp on that Labour is being foolish by focusing on the question of his involvement in the controversial decision to drop plain packaging for cigarettes, it should be viewed in light of this state of affairs.
The basic facts are that a policy which David Cameron was rather keen on has seen a sudden u-turn, to the manifest benefit of one of Lynton Crosby’s clients as a lobbyist — the tobacco giant Philip Morris. This has been compounded by Mr Cameron’s repeated, and well-documented, failure to clarify Crosby’s involvement in the decision.
So far we have been told many times that Crosby didn’t lobby the Prime Minister on plain packaging — never mind that the question was whether they had had any discussions or conversations on the subject. Now, courtesy of an interview on the Andrew Marr show, we know that according to Cameron Crosby didn’t “intervene”.
True enough, at the moment this is not a make-or-break issue for the government. But it could be.
People don’t trust politicians. They trust the government even less. They already suspect that David Cameron is working for the rich and powerful, for big corporations and millionaires. They are already concerned by the amount of sway such people have in the halls of power. And as far as vested interests go, Lynton Crosby and his firm CrosbyTextor might as well be them made into flesh.
So, in my view, Labour are right to ask these questions. They would do well, too, to keep asking them. And not just about cigarettes, but about every policy the government brings forward. Is Mr Crosby influencing health policy in favour of clients in the private healthcare sector? What about energy policy? Planning? Education? Transport? The questions should be asked and asked again until the image is cemented of David Cameron’s government as a wholly-owned subsidiary of CrosbyTextor.
David Cameron has brought a lobbyist into the heart of his political and government machine. Granted, he did so to rescue himself from increasingly probable defenestration, but now he seems more and more reticent to answer questions on the matter. And it could all be put to bed so easily, if Cameron would say whether he and Crosby had any discussions about plain packaging.
He won’t, and the fact that he won’t speaks volumes about his actions and his judgement. Labour would be foolish not to take full advantage of that.
UPDATED: It looks like someone out there is listening.