Never before in British politics can the recruitment of a part-time consultant have been given so much coverage. The papers have treated Lynton Crosby’s coming arrival at Conservative Campaign Headquarters with the seriousness that used to be reserved for changes in the great offices of state. Ministers are no less excited; they are full of theories about the significance of the hiring of this hardscrabble Australian operative and what it says about the future direction of the party.
So what’s the fuss about? Well, as with so much to do with the Cameroons, one can only really understand it in the light of the 2010 election. In this case, Lynton’s appointment means that the Conservative leadership has finally accepted that its campaign was a mess, full of competing egos and mixed messages. A senior figure says: ‘It’s a total acceptance by David and George of the critique of the last election campaign.’
When Downing Street insiders talk about Crosby, the word they use most frequently to describe him is ‘professional’. This is meant to convey two things. First, it is a reference to the fact that his campaigns tend to run like clockwork: the 2005 Tory campaign (which he ran) might have been unsuccessful but it worked better operationally than any other in living memory. But it is also meant to stress that Crosby will be implementing what Cameron and Osborne want rather than indulging his own instincts. This is meant to reassure Tory modernisers that Cameron won’t suddenly turn into John Howard, the dry-as-dust leader whom Crosby got elected time and again in his native Australia. One Downing Street source is emphatic that ‘Lynton won’t be making policy.’ My information is that Crosby will work as a part-time campaign adviser for the Tories — the current plan is for him to do a week a month for the first year — until about six months before the next election. At that point, he’ll become the full-time campaign manager.
When trying to understand why the recruitment of Crosby has so gripped the British political class, there are a few things to bear in mind. The first is its infatuation with politics in America, a country where campaign consultants have far greater influence than they traditionally have had here. As Westminster politicians and journalists make their way through the instant histories of the last US presidential race, they are searching for lessons. Buttressing this trend is that British politics is becoming more Americanised: Crosby will be more important to the Tory election campaign than all but a handful of cabinet ministers. Indeed, it says something interesting about our politics than no Briton was in contention to manage the 2015 Tory effort. Until the effective confirmation of Crosby’s role, the other candidate touted by Downing Street insiders was the American Bill Knapp.
The second factor is that Crosby is a Technicolor character in a politically monochrome age. With what Peter Carey would call his adjectival speaking style, he’s simply more fun to write about than some of the blander members of the Cabinet. One veteran of Crosby’s time on the Boris campaign predicts, ‘There’ll be plenty of bust-ups. He’s a bruising character and very office-political.’
Then there is the Boris angle. When Crosby came in to run Boris’s London mayoral campaign in 2008, he knew relatively little about this magazine’s former editor. He was, instead, answering a call from George Osborne, who had become alarmed at the amateur state of Boris’s operation. Osborne certainly saw Crosby taking on the role as a favour. After it was all over and Boris had won, Osborne took Crosby out for a slap-up supper in St James to say thank you. But over the course of the two campaigns, Boris and Crosby became close. Crosby, who used to dismiss talk of Boris being prime minister out of hand, began to entertain the question when asked about it. This, combined with Crosby’s doubts about Cameron, meant that some Tories began to wonder if this double act could go national.
Crosby signing up as a consultant, though, means that he is now working for the current leadership. And Boris was a very public advocate of this move, which suggests that the mayor doesn’t intend to return to parliament this side of the election.
The main reason, though, for all the interest in Crosby’s role is the fact that there is still uncertainty about who Cameron is. His personnel decisions are still taken as indications of where he is heading politically. This is because there have been several phases of Cameron, the Tory chief. In the early period of his leadership, he carved out a clear political niche for himself: he was the general well-being Conservative. Then the financial crisis came along and what had been the height of fashion suddenly looked extremely dated. He had to reinvent himself again.
This job was not complete by the time of the last election; hence the confusion about the party’s strategy. But those around Cameron are confident that they have finally cracked it, that his conference speech — with its emphasis on aspiration and global -competition — showed where the party should be going. As one puts it: ‘There’s a clear line from the conference speech to the campaign.’
It is this belief that they now have a strategy that has helped give them the confidence to sign Crosby up. As one figure involved in the negotiations observes, ‘It feels better bringing him in after that conference speech.’ They calculate that, to quote one influential figure inside No. 10, Crosby has ‘the capacity to take the strategy and turn it into an election campaign.’
The biggest challenge will be co-ordinating Crosby’s work at Conservative Campaign Headquarters with what is going on inside Whitehall. This government can often, partly because of coalition, be quite detached from the party political implications of what it is doing. But the obvious way to change that — having senior figures in No. 10 report to Crosby — appears to have been ruled out.
It won’t be until much nearer the next election campaign that we’ll know if the Cameroons really are prepared to produce the clear campaign hierarchy that would prevent a repeat of 2010. But the hiring of Crosby is an encouraging sign. As an old colleague of his remarks, ‘He will not brook being told what to do by three different people.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012