Quite a few journalists at last night’s Portland Communications pub quiz, and one or two of them asking me what I thought of the Tories’ planned hiring of Australian consultant Lynton Crosby. The general feeling seemed to be that it was a good move and would benefit the Tories as they seek their first general election win since 1992.
But I think for some of them there was a fair bit of misreading going on, both in relation to his record, and to the difference between London and general elections, and between opposition and government.
First, on his record, he certainly has a few election wins he can point to. But the only time I saw his work close up, in the 2005 general election when he was Michael Howard’s strategist, if it was really his campaign, it was hard to be impressed. It was our third election, after the Iraq war and with the story of the Attorney General’s advice drowning out the debate at times, yet still we got a good majority. Now it may be that Howard was driving the campaign himself, but the so-called dog whistle approach and the appeal to basic right wing instincts smacked of Crosby, and totally misread the difference between media and public opinion, and between polling and real opinion.
As for Boris Johnson’s two wins in Mayoral elections, there are two points to make. The first is that the key to Boris’s success is his personality. The second is that in general elections, policy really does come to the fore.
Here the difference between opposition and government comes into play. It will not be easy for Crosby to grip the government policy machine, even if he wants to, but policy being developed now will be central to the government’s success between now and the election, which in turn will impact upon success at the polls.
Anyone you speak to in government speaks of drift and lack of grip at the centre, so it may be that Crosby is entering what the military call a permissive environment. But he will find it hard to get his hands on all the levers he will need to get his hands on.
The key is less Crosby than Cameron. He surely knows by now that lack of clear and sustained strategy is his problem. I assume Crosby had been hired to try to give him one. The fact the PM has so far struggled, and the fact he and Crosby were both central to the 2005 campaign, should make Labour more confident than the press are suggesting they should be. No complacency, as always, should be a watchword. But two wins for Boris are not the stuff of strategic invincibility.