Alice Thomson

‘The Tories must be ruthless’

In his first interview since the election, Lynton Crosby tells Alice Thomson what he has enjoyed about living in Britain and running Michael Howard’s campaign

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In his first interview since the election, Lynton Crosby tells Alice Thomson what he has enjoyed about living in Britain and running Michael Howard’s campaign

He is the Wizard of Oz. During the election campaign he used to stand behind the curtains at press conferences directing operations. He never talked to journalists and no one ever saw him on television but everyone assumed that the Tories’ Australian campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, was pulling all the levers. He was credited with many great and evil powers, with revitalising the Tory party, with demonising asylum-seekers, with forcing Gordon Brown to hold hands with Tony Blair. All three parties were afraid of him.

He certainly showed the Tory lions, scarecrows and tin men that they had a brain, and helped them to be brave. The party proved it had a heart again when it mourned the loss of Michael Howard (Dorothy), who decided to go back to Kansas. But was Crosby really a wizard, or was he just a backroom boy? It’s almost impossible to find him: he hates giving interviews, he never answers his mobile phone, and he’s returning to Australia this week.

Finally I receive a message: ‘Lynton, 3.30 p.m., 51 Buckingham Gate.’ He meets me in the foyer of a discrete hotel, puts his riding boots on the chair and orders mint tea (not so Aussie after all, even if he does say ‘Thanks, mate’).

‘I am no wizard,’ he explains. ‘My job is to support the leader. Alastair Campbell likes everyone to think he’s got mysterious powers, but to me the leader is boss. I was just here for assistance and advice.’ His detractors hold him responsible for raising issues such as gypsies, abortion and yobs. ‘Most people don’t have a clue about my ideas,’ he says. ‘I’m at the more moderate end of the spectrum.’ His tactics have been amazingly successful in Australia, where the 48-year-old has helped the Liberal party to win four elections in a row. He’s given advice to countries ranging from Fiji to China. ‘It’s all weirdly similar. People everywhere have the same aspirations, hopes and fears.’

Did he see it as a personal failure when the Tories lost? His only other setback was when he failed to win office in Queensland at the beginning of his political career; it turned him into a backroom boy. ‘I always play to win — I don’t want an honourable draw or a distinguished loss. But having said that, the Tories did have a few problems to overcome,’ he says. ‘The party had suffered two significant defeats. It takes time to rebuild. And they are back in the game again.’ The Liberal party was out of power for 13 years in Australia before Crosby helped the other Howard to win back power. ‘Everyone said we were doomed; it was the same here. Even the Tories had lost their self-belief, but it’s clear the voters haven’t written them off. So the result was encouraging, but not my ultimate desire.’

Crosby has been in Britain for six months, living in his hotel room, eating at London gentlemen’s clubs, ‘not all spotted dick and custard, bloody good food really’, visiting marginals, and reading the Guardian — ‘only because it’s free in the hotel’. He has sat in on dozens of focus groups around the country listening to voters discuss everything from Posh and Becks to pints and birds. He has read biographies of everyone from Churchill to a remaindered copy of an Enoch Powell biography he found. ‘I didn’t want to be some Aussie clown who didn’t know what was going on.’

Just before the campaign started he thought they had a real chance. He has spent the past week analysing the results. ‘In the last few days Iraq was a problem,’ he says. ‘People remembered why they had lost trust in Tony Blair, but they couldn’t see any real difference between the Tories and Labour, so we lost out on that.’ He believes there was nothing the Tories could do to stop Mr Blair and Mr Brown licking ice creams together. ‘But we couldn’t get Michael Howard and Kenneth Clarke to share hotdogs or everyone would have said we’d lost faith in the Tory leader.’ He says that Mr Howard was not the problem. ‘Our research showed that voters on the doorstep did not think “Dracula”. What you see is what you get with him. He looked serious and competent. He never fluffed it.’

Another rumour he wants to dispel is the dog whistle. ‘Of course we didn’t use a bloody dog whistle, or send secret signals to particular groups. Everyone could hear what we were saying to voters; it was more like a foghorn, persistent and resonant. We ran ads on all our main issues, we sent letters to millions of homes. And we weren’t just appealing to our core vote; we’d already got that.’ He believes the Tories could have done more rather than less on immigration. ‘Michael gave only 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.”’

He explains, ‘One man’s opportunism is another man’s responsiveness. Michael Howard never said there should be no immigration, but there is a right way to come to this country and a wrong way.’ He says he nearly choked when he heard Mr Blair’s speech on the day he won his third term. ‘It could have been a speech by Michael Howard — all that stuff on immigration, yobs, cleaner hospitals and discipline. It’s all ours.’ But it all sounded so negative. ‘This is a fantastic country; our campaign didn’t put me off. I had to go to hospital here for a night and the Aussie nurse was great — though she was shocked by the conditions. The problem now is that voters no longer believe that Mr Blair can put it right.’ He was surprised by the viciousness of the Labour campaign. ‘That Fagin poster was racist. I hadn’t encountered that kind of anti-Semitism before.’

When Labour started talking about ‘the Aussie Question’ and told him to go home, he was amused. ‘They’ve got Aussies on their own team and we’ve given you Kylie and Home and Away.’ He hated it more when Mr Blair started discussing his sex life. ‘I regret I didn’t nick a Qantas sickbag. Blair may have spent some of his childhood in Australia and his middle name is Lynton, but he’s not an Aussie. He’s not a straight talker.’ Aussie politics are far tougher; British politicians are wussie Poms. ‘Politicians here like to pretend they are gentlemen but they are as aggressive as any Aussie. They are fighting to govern the fourth richest nation in the world.’

Some people thought the Tories went too far with the poster which asked, ‘How would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter?’ ‘You don’t run ads for people to like but to send a message. You have pictures of furry animals if you want to be liked.’

Calling Mr Blair a liar, admittedly not Crosby’s idea, was also pretty blunt. ‘A Labour party political broadcast called Mr Major a liar 12 times in 1997.’ But they could have been more humorous. ‘Piss-taking is a potent weapon but it’s quite difficult to be funny about MRSA and Iraq.’

In Conservative headquarters they loved his jokes. ‘The staff arrived at 5.30 a.m. and left at 11 p.m. We had to keep them going, so we had lots of awards for everyone, from the press-room to the postroom staff.’ He was one of the few to know that Mr Howard was going to retire if he didn’t win. ‘It was understandable.’ Was it the right decision? ‘He’s done it, so the party will just have to get on with it.’ His advice to the Tories now is simple. ‘Voters won’t be interested in ideas or policies at the moment. It’s all about how you conduct yourselves; you’ve got to look unified, disciplined and dignified.’ Discipline is a favourite Crosby word, as Howard Flight discovered. ‘The Tories can’t be seen as self-obsessed; they need to look as though they care about other people. They can’t be confused, divided or have hidden agendas or plots. In 1997 they became a shambles. They’ve got to show they are ruthless, determined and responsible.’

His favourite Aussies are Barry Humphries and Kylie Minogue. He wants the Tories to take lessons from her. ‘She’s not a quitter and she never whinges. She is a good operator and she works bloody hard. She knows how to reinvent herself but still be true to herself. Even with this cancer thing she is being positive.’

He’s beginning to miss Australia. ‘I want to clean out my garage, shift boxes; I’m a pretty average sort of person. No one in Australia really knows who I am. I’m a country kid from a small farming community in Kadina, South Australia. My family are mining stock from Cornwall.’

Here, he has met Margaret Thatcher, but not the Queen. ‘She doesn’t vote and she doesn’t live in one of our target seats, so there was no point.’ But he is emotional about Britain. ‘She can still punch above her weight. She is a great little country; I love her institutions. You should be proud of yourselves.’ His company was paid £250,000 but he obviously didn’t do it for the money. ‘It’s back to corporate work now; I’ll miss politics.’

This weekend he will fly home with some campaign posters as souvenirs. Before he leaves he wants to go on the London Eye and see Mary Poppins.

In many ways he sees himself more as Mary Poppins than as the Wizard of Oz. He is there to instil a bit of care and discipline in the party; to have fun with them. ‘If they want me, I’m sure I’ll come back,’ he says. ‘But I won’t say who for.’

Alice Thomson is associate editor of the Daily Telegraph.