16/07/2013 07:36 BST | Updated 14/09/2013 06:12 BST

Lynton Crosby - Gun for Hire


When David Cameron hired Lynton Crosby to oversee the Conservatives' 2015 General Election campaign he seemed to be buying success.

The Australian's much vaunted political antennae first came to the attention of us in the UK in 2005, when he helped Michael Howard drag the Tories from the political abyss. His skills were again deployed in 2008, when Boris Johnson stumped up £140,000 for four months' work which was credited with helping to secure the Mayor a 141,000 majority

Since then he has become the man in demand for conservative politicians here and in Australia. His tactics are comparatively simple - focus on simple messages, keep discipline and try to promote divisions among your opposition by talking about policy areas where you know they can't agree among themselves.

Sounds simple. No wonder he's earning a fortune.

David Cameron and George Osborne have counted on Mr Crosby for some time. They know the 2015 Election is too close to call and the Conservative Party, showing many signs of "Coalition fatigue", is in danger of fracturing into different interest groups.

What they need are some simple campaigns that reunite the Party, allowing it to forge ahead with less than two years left before polling day. Mr Crosby has been working for the Conservatives since late last year to come up with those messages.

But their problem is that Mr Crosby is too successful. He doesn't only work for his political masters. These are tactics that also work well with commercial clients.

Look at the revelation in The Times' on Saturday that Mr Crosby's firm CTF has also been working with tobacco giant Philip Morris. The tactics, for lobbying against new policies such as plain packaging for cigarettes, are immediately familiar: apparently to divide the opposing groups, amplify some key experts' views without getting them to support Big Tobacco directly, and boil it all down to one simple message: in this case, "where's the proof that it will work?"

On the eve of publication of the Lobbying Bill it is worth noting that all this was disclosed not in a transparent register - but in a newspaper scoop containing a comment from one of Mr Crosby's staff saying they do not discuss their clients. And it is unfortunate timing that this revelation comes when the Government is apparently about to abandon its proposals to introduce plain tobacco packaging in this country.

Let me declare my interests. I am proud to be a lobbyist. And I favour an open and transparent register of the clients and staff of public affairs companies.

But as I have said before such a register has to be meaningful - and amongst other things that means it must cover the legal firms, management consultancies, one-man-bands and other third parties whose true list of clients may not be immediately obvious or available.

And this incident raises a new question: at what point can it be said that a commercial lobbyist is too close to the wheels of power? Clearly there is nothing untoward in this case, but we have to be careful about how things look. Surely it has to be right for lobbyists to be able to advise and inform policy-making - that, after all, is the point - but can it be right for them even to look like they are part of the final decision?

I think we all know it is impossible to have your cake and eat it. Probably best not to look like you are doing so, either.