As Martin Kettle writes in today’s Guardian: nothing else matters now in British politics. Yesterday’s poll showing that Scottish independence could be a reality in less than a fortnight is finally being given the space it warrants among London’s political commentators.
Thus, yesterday’s revelation that Lynton Crosby, aka the 'Wizard of Oz', lobbied a Conservative Minister on cigarette packaging just days before taking up his role as Tory election guru, has passed almost unnoticed. Crosby must be breathing a sigh of relief.
For Crosby-watchers – which includes anyone with concerns about the influence of tobacco and alcohol companies on policy, fracking firms on the UK’s energy strategy, and private healthcare lobbyists on the NHS – having concrete proof that Crosby lobbied the government is, though, significant.
Until yesterday we have had to accept both Crosby and David Cameron’s denials that he has been meddling in policy. We have been able to connect the dots – from Philip Morris International hiring Crosby’s lobbying firm to derail plans to sell cigarettes in unbranded cartons, to the government kicking these plans into the long grass – but never managed to see the full picture.
Crosby has always insisted that accusations that he used his position as Tory campaign director to influence the policy were “false”. In a carefully worded statement last summer, he said: "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.”
Now we have hard evidence that in late 2012 – just a fortnight before the Tories announced Crosby's appointment as their election strategist – Crosby lobbied his friend, Lord Marland, then minister for intellectual property and a former Conservative party treasurer, against the introduction of plain packaging.
Which casts doubt on the Prime Minister’s assurances just six months later that "Lynton Crosby does not lobby the government, he does not lobby me, he gives political advice and I think that’s a very clear situation.” If David Cameron had said that “Crosby has recently lobbied the government, but doesn’t anymore, now that he’s working at the heart of government,” that would have been clearer. As it is, the Prime Minister’s statements – which include an insistence that the furore over Crosby’s lobbying was a "media invention" – appear at best highly misleading.
What other policies might Crosby have been influencing? We know that his firm, CTF Partners, works, or has worked, for companies in alcohol, banking, property development, the oil industry, and private healthcare, as well as tobacco. But, unlike most agencies in the UK, it chooses not to voluntarily disclose the names of its clients. Nor does it need to, according to Cameron: "[Crosby’s] work, his lobbying, the lobbying business is a matter for the lobbying business," he said.
This, of course, runs counter to Cameron’s previous statements on the need to shine a light on lobbying and “force our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence”. "We all know how it works,” said Cameron of lobbying. “The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.... I believe that secret corporate lobbying goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics,” (an issue Owen Jones alludes to in his discussion on what lies behind support for Scottish independence). It is absolutely in the public interest to know who is influencing which public servants and public policies.
CTF Partners has amassed a staff with considerable connections to achieve this aim. They include Mark Fullbrook, ex-head of campaigns for the Tories who deputied on Boris Johnson’s successful 2012 London Mayoral campaign and is married to Tory MP Lorraine Fullbrook; David Canzini, who has a 20 year career working for the Tories including director of party campaigning; Sam Lyon, former spokesperson for Boris and a large number of other Boris campaigners, including Isabel Mackay and Robin Knight.
The chances of Crosby being forced to reveal his clients under the government’s new rules for lobbyists are almost nil. The register of lobbyists, introduced in the much criticised Lobbying Bill, which was supposed to shine a light on who was influencing whom and about what, is a sham. But, Crosby may yet have to come clean about which commercial interests have hired his lobbying firm.
When he was first appointed as Conservative Party election supremo, Lord Ashcroft warned Crosby against “becoming the story” in Westminster. “I’m sure you’ll get on with the job and stay out of the limelight,” the Tory donor wrote. Crosby has largely managed to contain the story of his lobbying so far.
How much longer he will stay behind the scenes – and how much more of his lobbying will emerge – remains to be seen.