Talking Politics

Could the ‘wizard of Oz’ win the next election for Cameron?

David Cameron has taken a big decision. It's not every day you put your political career in the hands of one man — especially one as unpredictable and forthright as Lynton Crosby.

After weeks of rumours in Westminster, Crosby has been confirmed as a key man in the Conservatives' election strategy team for the next general election.  He will reportedly start working part-time in the new year and then slowly build up to a full-time role. The exact nature of that role is yet to be determined, but it is unthinkable that Crosby, a real alpha-male, will accept a position as 'just one of the team'. He is expected to demand his polling company takes over the government's in-house work. He will certainly be paid a vast sum of money. "Kill the fatted calf", Boris Johnson had advised, in order to secure Crosby's services. Johnson has been elected to City Hall twice on the back of Crosby's campaign management. He knows, more than anyone else in Britain, the value which this son of a cereal farmer can bring to the Tories in their quest for power in 2015.

The decision to hire Crosby will not be universally popular in the Conservative party. Lord Ashcroft has warned he will sew "conflict" within the Tory party. He is a "distracting influence", it's claimed. Ashcroft will doubtless be taking a grim satisfaction from the story on the front page of this weekend's the Mail on Sunday, claiming that Crosby indulged in a 'racist rant' during the London campaign. The blunt-talking Australian reportedly said Boris' best bet was to concentrate on traditional Tory voters rather than "f***ing Muslims". The newspaper's source added, stating the obvious: "Some people found it very offensive."

Whether or not the quote is accurate, it sums up the fears many moderate Conservatives will have about the party's direction heading towards 2015. They will worry that Crosby's right-wing approach to the political game will send the party firmly sailing away from the centre ground. Their memories are of Michael Howard's 2005 campaign, with its 'are you thinking what we're thinking?' slogan and emphasis on immigration. Crosby's reputation for delivering subtle subliminal messages, developed during the four election victories he helped Australian prime minister John Howard to from 1996 to 2004, came in for severe questioning. He was accused of blowing a "dog whistle" to right-leaning voters.

His company literature points out that many experts predicted the Conservatives might become Britain's third party, but that was never Crosby's goal. His aim is to win elections, not settle for second. Howard took seats off New Labour, but only increased the Tories' vote share by 0.7%. His strategy didn't work.

There are few signs that Crosby is becoming more delicate as he presses on into his mid-50s. "The most important element in a campaign is message. I always say 'message matters most'," he said earlier this year in an interview with Total Politics magazine.

"It doesn't matter how many leaflets you put out or doors you knock on, if you don't have a relevant message for the voters then you won't win."

The early signs are that Crosby will not hold back in encouraging Cameron to move to the right. 'Hug a hoodie' was right for the times, he told BBC's Hardtalk programme this summer. Now he's prime minister as well as Conservative leader, the game has changed. "It's a case of having to deal with the pressure and reality of here and now," he said. "He hasn't changed his beliefs, he's just accepted he's become prime minister."

Crosby is about more than just ensuring a right-wing message, however. What struck many senior Conservatives about his performance in 2005 was the way in which he organised the party's all-important behind-the-scenes management of the campaign. Firm decision-making and carefully constructed command structures were his trademarks. When handling a candidate like Boris Johnson, a certain discipline was called for, too. Crosby certainly had a clear message for the blond-haired mop. He is supposed to have told Johnson at their first dinner together: "If you let us down, we'll cut your f***ing knees off."

Now Crosby faces his biggest challenge yet. Halfway through the current parliament, Labour has established an impressive double-figures advantage in the polls. But the experts are warning their ten- to 13-point advantage is nowhere near enough at this stage of the game. To be assured of an overall majority, Ed Miliband needs a 20% lead right now. He hasn't got it. But neither have the Tories yet secured the 20-seat boost promised by their much-coveted boundary changes. A hung parliament seems a real possibility once again. So there will be no room for complacency from either side. With the 'wizard of Oz' on his team, Cameron is arming himself to the teeth for a bare-knuckle fight.

Crosby's appearance means the 2015 general election will be a more brutal affair.

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