19 Nov 2012

Can Cameron get ‘Lynton without the Lyntonism’?

So, as much trailed, David Cameron is taking on the Australian campaign manager Lynton Crosby to run the Conservatives’ election campaign in 2015.

The move has caused a lot of discussion and a lot of nervousness in Downing Street, and that anxiety is likely to continue over the next two and a half years.

In a way, Crosby is an obvious appointment, strongly urged by Boris Johnson, for whom he ran successful election campaigns in both 2008 and 2012, and overcame the natural Labour majority among London voters.

But even before he came to Britain, Lynton Crosby had a reputation as one of the one successful and ruthless campaign managers in the western world. Back in Australia he was involved in four successful election campaigns for the Liberal (i.e. Conservative) leader John Howard – in 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004.

The only real blemish on Crosby’s career was his first major job in this country, working for Michael Howard’s Conservatives in the 2005 election, where they lost badly (though not as badly as in 1997 or 2001).

The problem for George Osborne and those around David Cameron is that they want Lynton Crosby’s election skills, but they don’t want the ideological baggage which comes with Crosby – the tactics and strategy, without the politics. As one senior Cameron adviser put it to me: “We want Lynton without Lyntonism.”

‘Dog whistle’ politics

What exactly do they mean by “Lyntonism”?

Two regular features of Lynton Crosby’s election campaigns in Australia and Britain have been “wedge” politics, and the closely related “dog whistle” style of campaigning.

“Wedge” politics involves focussing on an issue which is socially divisive, but with the effect of boosting your support. “Dog whistle politics” is where an overt message seems to contain a coded message within it, as seen in the slogan the British Conservatives used in 2005: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”

Crosby’s style in both countries has been to concentrate on popular right-wing issues, such as immigration, the problem of travellers, and policing and criminal justice.  Two of Crosby’s most controversial messages from 2005 were: “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration” and “How would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter?”

And the trouble for David Cameron and his close advisers is that his campaign for the Conservative leadership after the 2005 defeat was in reaction to the populism of the 2005 contest (even though Cameron himself played a key role in that campaign).  The Cameroons thought the Michael Howard/Lynton Crosby right-wing populism would never secure the Conservatives another majority. In short, Cameron ran for the leadership partly in reaction to Lyntonism.

Campaign vs policy

The worry for Cameron and Osborne, and for advisers such as Andrew Cooper and Danny Finkelstein, is that Crosby will drag them back onto such territory (though to a degree that’s already happened).  The Conservative high command may try to confine Lynton Crosby to a box, in charge of the mechanics of running an election, rather than the policy and messages, but politics doesn’t work like that.

Lynton Crosby is a strong personality, and will want to bring his own people into the operation. And no doubt he will be able to find evidence from focus groups he runs to persuade Cameron and Osborne that they’d do better if they were much tougher on immigration, welfare and so on, and said a lot less about green issues or gay marriage, or whatever.

Unless Cameron and Osborne keep a very tight grip on the political messages of the campaign, with plenty of strong and bright Cameroons around Downing Street and Conservative HQ to argue for sticking with the modernisation project, then in the heat of battle they may be overwhelmed by Lynton Crosby and his politics.

Indeed, they’re already worried that might happen.

The struggle of Lyntonism looks set to be a fascinating fight over the 900 days between now and May 2015.

Follow Michael on Twitter via @MichaelLCrick