Tories picked the wrong person for the job

Published in The Independent (November 19th, 2012)

No textbooks have been written in homage to the brilliance of the Libertas campaign for the 2009 European Parliament elections. The party was formed by a businessman named Declan Ganley, fresh from his success in defeating the political establishment in Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon EU treaty. His mission was to conquer Europe with its vision of hostility to further expansion by Brussels.

Alas for Mr Ganley, the campaign was the dampest of squibs. The fledgling force intended to shake up Europe by melding an alliance of like-minded parties. But after rebuffing unwanted approaches from the likes of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria, it struck out on its own. It fielded more than 500 candidates across Europe, but only one triumphed. So profound was the failure, the party’s founder quit politics.

This was, of course, just another of those vainglorious ventures by a quixotic businessman with more money than sense. Curiously, however, the mastermind of this farcical footnote in the annals of European political history was an abrasive Australian consultant named Lynton Crosby, the man hailed as the “Wizard of Oz” who has now been hired by the Conservatives to run their general election campaign.

The episode demonstrates the limits to his wizardry. But even his enemies – and there are many –  admit Mr Crosby is usually a competent campaigner. Politics is a process scarred by poor management, and there were justified criticisms over the efficiency of the Conservative political operation at the last election. His task is clear: to fire up a machine that spluttered in 2010 so that it runs smoothly, while ensuring all those involved head in the same direction.

The big question is which direction? It is this that makes Crosby’s hiring such a regressive step, even if he does impose order on an operation that has been dysfunctional at times. For it is a step back into the nasty party past, a major setback for the modernisers trying to turn the Tories into a more powerful and positive electoral force in tune with a changing nation. If the Tories revert to his reactionary tricks, they risk profound damage to their long-term prospects.

Ever since he burst on to the political scene in his native land, Crosby has proved a highly divisive figure, the last thing any political party wants in its upper echelons. He made his name taking the dour John Howard to four consecutive victories in Australia, a stunning achievement. Yet Mr Howard has told friends he does not have the highest opinion of his general election mastermind; it is noticeable how few mentions he gets in the former premier’s lengthy biography.

Crosby’s success in Australia relied on sharp right-wing messages, often revolving around crime and immigration and descending into the crudest possible politics. Most infamously, there was the exploitation of false allegations that asylum-seekers tried to blackmail their way into the country by throwing children overboard, prompting Howard’s infamous slogan: “We will decide who comes into this country.” There was also his business partner forced to pay damages to a Labor party candidate after claiming she supported abortions at nine months and other distasteful incidents.

Hideous stuff. But it proved successful, setting the template for Crosby’s aggressive and negative campaign style. Hired by Michael Howard to salvage the Conservative campaign in 2005, he sought again to play on people’s fears by placing crime and immigration at the heart of the campaign, importing the use of “ dog-whistle” slogans. The British public proved not to be thinking what he was thinking; despite the unpopularity of a prime minister wounded by the Iraq war shenanigans, the party increased its share of the vote by a paltry 0.7 per cent.

His re-appointment is the leadership’s latest sop to the right. This is the faction that led calls for a cut in top rate tax that caused Tory poll ratings to plunge after the budget. It was a naive move amid a vicious downturn that underscored jibes the party cared only for the rich. Now they hail Crosby’s success in running Boris Johnson’s mayoral campaigns in London as evidence he is a winner.

Johnson is an instinctive liberal who even supported an amnesty for illegal immigrants. But with Crosby at the helm, he lurched to the right on immigration this year, making it a campaign issue. Afterwards his former media adviser Guto Harri said Johnson would have been a more comfortable winner against his hopeless, outdated opponent if he had not come across as “a little less charismatic, a little less broad-minded and a little less attractive” in the campaign.

Crosby’s appointment raises fears the Conservatives are set to repeat the mistake they made under their three last leaders. They set out to appeal to the centre ground then, under pressure from vociferous voices on the right, tacking sharply towards the core vote. “It’s a fucking disaster,” said one of the most prominent Tory modernisers when I asked for his response. “It is back to all the same old things I thought we had left behind.”

For all the fuss and furore they generate, election battles are determined by a small number of marginal votes in a small number of marginal seats. The irony of imposing such a divisive figure now is that he arrives just as the Conservative campaign team is getting its act together, as seen by the success of David Cameron’s conference speech that united the party in deserved applause

The party has adopted a sensible strategy revolving around defending its 40 most vulnerable seats while focusing on 40 others needed to win. This would, however, be jeopardised by a negative, right-wing stance driving away much-needed Liberal Democrat, female and ethnic minority voters. Mitt Romney has demonstrated the wisdom of such an approach in the US.

If the party is to prosper, it must learn the lessons of the past. It needs to find ways to broaden its appeal to minorities; not being white is, after all, the single biggest determinant in not voting Conservative. Instead, they have appointed a man who could undermine all that David Cameron stands for and whose approach risks long-term damage to the party brand. And as Libertas found out, he is far from a guaranteed election winner.

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