Two swiftly-executed policy retreats seem to have succeeded in elevating David Cameron’s general election strategist Lynton Crosby to a status comparable to that of Peter Mandelson, arch manipulator for Tony Blair, whose dark arts were credited with helping to steer New Labour to victory in 1997.
Coalition government U turns on plain packaging for cigarettes and minimum pricing for alcohol are both said to reflect the hidden hand of the so called “Wizard of Oz” who is reported to have told the Prime Minister that it is time to start “scraping the barnacles off the hull” in order to prepare the Conservative Party for the long haul to the 2015 general election.
Judging by the ruthless way the decks are being cleared in readiness for the 2015 campaign he is doing what Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, says the Australian strategist does best of all: “winning out the stuff” that politicians might think is important but which does not meet the Crosby mantra that “message matters most”.
And, if the robust stances being adopted by Conservative ministers on issues such as illegal immigration and social security fraud are any guide, the ground is already being prepared for a bruising confrontation with Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
But it is the speed with which Crosby has succeeded – at least for the present – in closing down stories about the links between himself, his partner Mark Textor and the tobacco company Philip Morris Ltd – a connection first revealed by Spinwatch as long ago as 2005 – which is the clearest illustration of his likely effectiveness as “Dave’s Rottweiler”
He will now get additional support from Jim Messina who was Barack Obama’s campaign manager in the 2012 US Presidential election and who will advise the Conservatives on how to make greater use of online social media. Messina helped to mastermind Obama’s re-election and will report directly Crosby who has been working on the Tories’ election tactics since the start of the year.
Crosby seems to be squaring up for what looks like being a personal grudge match between the Conservatives and Labour in the 2015 general election.
Already there are uncanny echoes with the Conservatives’ defeat in the 2005 general election when Crosby was hired as Michael Howard’s strategist. He failed to secure a repeat of the run of election victories which he had helped to deliver for the Australian Prime Minister John Howard but the Tories did manage to cut Tony Blair’s majority from 160 to 66 seats.
A trawl through Crosby’s post 2005 election interviews does throw considerable light on the tactics which the Conservatives are now adopting under David Cameron. Crosby revealed that in retrospect he considered Michael Howard should have campaigned even harder on immigration, a reflection which perhaps only serves to underline the significance of the Tories’ heightened emphasis on curbing immigration and tightening controls on UK borders.
Feeding frenzies in Westminster hothouse
Crosby’s great strength in the hothouse of British politics is that his temperament is well suited to withstanding Westminster feeding frenzies. Once he has been hired to work on an election campaign, he rarely if ever speaks to journalists and his occasional post-election interviews tend to be rather anodyne with only the odd clue here and there as to the kind of tactics he likes to deploy.
Unlike Blair’s two spin supremos, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, Crosby has had the good fortune not to be bedevilled by a back history of having crossed swords with countless political correspondents. With little firsthand information to go on, reporters have to rely on often spurious quotes from anonymous insiders and, as the speculative stories come and go, he remains seemingly unperturbed.
Crosby’s expertise is more comparable with that of Mandelson than other assorted spin doctors, such as Campbell, Andy Coulson or Bernard Ingham, because his undoubted tactical skill is in crafting messages around policy positions rather than in engaging in the cut and thrust of hand-to-hand combat with the news media.
Much of Mandelson’s work for Neil Kinnock and then Tony Blair related to policy presentation. Labour Party activists had to accept the uncomfortable reality that before decisions were taken the leadership would want to consider whether a policy could be promoted successfully.
Crosby’s dogged persistence in exploiting fears over illegal immigration, both in Australia and subsequently in the UK, has a parallel with Mandelson’s dedication to the task in hand in the 1990s. Mandelson was equally relentless under Blair in pursuing the goal of reducing trade union influence in the Labour Party’s affairs and in forcing the wider labour movement to accept Margaret Thatcher’s curbs on strike action.
John Howard’s “battlers” akin to David Cameron’s “strivers”
Selecting issues which will play well with voters is only the first step; a successful election strategist has to have the ingenuity to work out how policy positions can best be presented and then ensure politicians stick to the message.
Crosby had good reason to be dubbed the “Wizard of Oz” and it was no wonder that in October 2004, after having just notched up his fourth consecutive general election victory for Australia’s most successful conservative Prime Minister, he was immediately hired by Michael Howard.
John Howard, leader of the Australian Liberal Party, had fought the 2004 election with a campaign which played to his strengths as a defender of what were dubbed “Howard’s battlers”, those voters who trusted him to manage the economy and protect their interests.
Crosby’s campaign tactics exploited voters’ fears over asylum seekers, a ploy which he used to drive a wedge between traditional supporters of the Australian Labor Party.
When Michael Howard announced his choice of an Australian strategist to fight a British general election the following year, he said he had known Crosby for the previous ten years and had always admired his ability. A reputation for running highly-disciplined campaigns and his conviction that general elections could be won or lost in marginal constituencies appealed to staff at Tory headquarters.
Michael Howard had been elected leader unopposed in the autumn of 2003 after a vote of no confidence in his predecessor Iain Duncan Smith. With the prospect of a general election only eighteen months away his party was desperate to find ways of fighting back after two successive defeats at the hands of Tony Blair.
In the event the 2005 general election resulted in another convincing Labour victory, although the Conservatives did gain 33 seats. In the first few weeks of the campaign Crosby’s strategy was all too obvious. Slogans on election posters left little room for doubt: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking? It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.”
Why Conservatives should have campaigned longer on immigration
The campaign aimed to build on Howard’s initiative at the start of the year that an incoming Conservative government would seek to introduce a quota for asylum seekers, a policy initiative again thought to have been heavily influenced by Crosby.
However, in the final week of the campaign Howard shied away from the issue, much it transpired later, to Crosby’s regret. Tucked away in a post election interview conducted by Alice Thomson for the Spectator (20.5.2005) was the revelation that he believed the Conservatives should have done more rather than less to campaign on immigration:
“Michael Howard never said there should be no immigration but there is a right way to come to this country and a wrong way...Michael only gave one speech and one press conference on it in 34 days. In the last few days we were still finding voters who said, ‘Why haven’t you mentioned immigration? We’d vote for you if you did.’”
Another illuminating reflection in an interview by Jasper Gerard for the Sunday Times (22.5.2005) was his disappointment at having had insufficient time to work on a campaign for a party leader who had only been in office for eighteen months before having to go to the polls.
After two significant defeats the timescale was too short; it took time to rebuild a brand that had been damaged and on his arrival he had found that the Tories had even lost their self-belief. “I would have liked eighteen months, not six months in the job.”
A furrther handicap was his discovery that much of the campaign strategy had been pre-determined by the Conservatives’ long-standing election guru Lord Saatchi; newspaper commentaries at the time suggested this had provoked considerable tension between the two advisers.
“Winnowing out” unimportant policies a key discipline
Crosby faces no such constraints in preparing for the 2015 election. By polling day he will have had a clear run of almost two and a half years to work out strategies, both for the long pre-election build-up and for the final few weeks of the campaign itself. Initially he has been hired to work for a week each month but will be full time from the start of 2014.
Cameron’s pre-emptive strike in hiring a director of strategy so far in advance of polling day was perhaps no surprise after Crosby’s success in running Boris Johnson’s campaign to get elected Mayor of London in 2008 and then his re-election in 2012.
By all accounts Crosby’s key piece of advice in 2008, in trying to turn round what was initially regarded as a pretty disastrous campaign, was that Johnson should curb his natural ebullience and instead concentrate on presenting himself as a serious candidate.
Johnson’s re-election and second defeat of Ken Livingstone, albeit by a closer majority than expected, electrified the Conservatives party because Crosby’s campaign had to counter government unpopularity and his success led to calls for this “genius strategist” to be hired immediately by Cameron for the 2015 election.
Crosby praised Johnson for having outperformed his party and the Mayor of London repaid the compliment by saying the “Wizard of Oz” was the “best campaign manager” he had ever worked with; he urged Tory headquarters to “break the piggy bank” to hire him.
Within a matter of months Crosby had indeed been signed up by Cameron who had learned some harsh lessons from the inconclusive result of the 2010 general election. The Conservatives had lacked a clear command structure. Responsibility was split between campaign director George Osborne, director of strategy Steve Hilton, communications director Andy Coulson and Cameron’s chief of staff Ed Llewellyn.
Boris Johnson’s conclusion that a successful campaign requires a clear line of control certainly seems to be holding true for Cameron. What had so impressed the re-elected Mayor of London about Crosby’s role as a strategist was his insistence on jettisoning policies which deflected attention from the core issues of the election.
Johnson told Paola Totaro, who wrote a profile of Crosby for the Independent Magazine (9.2.2013), that when it came to “scraping the barnacles of the hull” this was a day-to-day task the Wizard of Oz was un-matched at: “winnowing out the stuff that you might think is important but doesn’t help you get the message across.”
“Wizard of Oz” will find it hard not to be provoked
Now Crosby has acquired a level of hidden influence akin to that of a Peter Mandelson hardly a week goes by without his fingerprints being detected behind controversial government decisions.
His “tally” includes not only responsibility for the U turns on plain cigarette packets and minimum pricing for alcohol but also for kicking a Leveson-style press regulator into the political long grass and for stiffening the government’s resolve to press ahead with the controversial process of fracking to extract gas from shale rock.
Crosby has also been blamed for encouraging the government to use post vans telling illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest” and conversely for having secretly criticised the Home Office for adopting a campaign strategy which focused the debate on tactics and not the issue of illegal immigration.
So far in the eight months since taking up his appointment he has only been provoked once into responding to speculative stories. His denial of involvement in Cameron’s decision to ditch plans for cigarette packaging was short and to the point:
“At no time have I had any conversation or discussion with or lobbied the Prime minister, or indeed the Health Secretary or the health minister, on plain packaging or tobacco issues. Indeed any claim that I have sought to improperly use my position as part-time campaign adviser to the Conservative Party is simply false.”
If Peter Mandelson’s experience is any guide, the “Wizard of Oz” will find his patience is tested time and again in the twenty months before polling day!
Illustrations: Daily Mail, 19.11.2012; Daily Mirror, 7.5.2013; The Observer, 14.7.2013; and Daily Mail, 27.7.2013.