It was reported yesterday that Lynton Crosby told the Oxford Union during a recent visit that he would not run the Conservative campaign in 2020 – but the original article which ran the claim didn’t have a quote from him to back it up.
ConservativeHome has duly made enquiries, and been told by friends of Crosby that he “would not work full time (along with several members of the team as in 2015) for several years)”. This would seem to rule out any leading role during the coming EU referendum campaign – since the Government is committed to hold the poll by the end of 2017 – but one can detect some wriggle room. Crosby is not exactly a fan of the EU, if this site’s experience is anything to go by, but he is also a paid gun. None the less, he wouldn’t work on a project to which he was opposed in principle or, perhaps, which would make David Cameron’s life difficult in practice.
In 2020, Crosby will be in his early 60s. He would thus be capable of running the general election campaign for the Prime Minister’s successor – assuming that he is asked in the first place, which raises the question of whether he should be. There are two usual objections to “the Lizard of Oz”. The first is about message: some argue that his safety-first focus on security isn’t enough to break through into the northern, Yorkshire and midlands marginals that the Tories will need to win in 2020 to have a strong majority. The second is about method: some – not necessarily the same people – maintain that Crosby’s intense focus on a small number of target seats may be sensible in the short-term but is damaging to the Party in the long, because of the neglect of other marginal and development seats which follows. They also disliked some of its manifestations in 2020, such as candidates being told to divert their money to target seats and to desert their own even on polling day.
It is worth disentangling these criticisms – because, in sum, there is a bit of truth in the second one, but not a lot in the first. Our columnist Rebecca Coulson, who fought the City of Durham seat last May, has complained of “bullying, rudeness and coercion”. Our candidate diarist elsewhere wrote that he was instructed to divert time, energy and money away from the marginal but non-target seat he was contesting. These developments entered with Crosby during the run-up to the last election, exit now that it’s over, and not be repeated next time round.
None the less, the other objections to him are wide of the mark, because they confuse his function with the Party leadership’s. It is up to the latter to set a strategic direction. It is then up to the former to see it followed through. So if the next Conservative Prime Minister wants a One Nation message for 2020 – aimed at the younger, city or suburb-dwelling, non-southern, ethnic minority voters that will be needed if the present majority is to grow – he or she will need to implement policies that will convince voters that it’s real. In short, Crosby will be responsible for the machine (if he’s there at all), but the politicians for the manifesto – from which, together with the Government’s record, the message will emerge. It is also up to the leadership – together with the rest of the Party – to plan for the medium-term. If money is not ring-fenced by CCHQ so that development seats are worked, or efforts to build support among (say) small business owners or students or Indian-origin voters are neglected, that cannot fairly be blamed on Crosby.
His strength is stripping down a campaign to its essentials, finding key voters through exhaustive research, honing the message to suit them, and managing the day to day campaign. This site has always recognised his strengths, which is why Tim Montgomerie called for his appointment when editor of this site, and I said that if he was to be drafted in then Crosby should be given complete control. Last May’s target-seat based victory would have been impossible without him, and ConservativeHome knows from the enquiries that it made in the last week of the campaign that the private Crosby/Textor polling was nearer the mark than that of most public pollsters. Crosby might well not want to come back full-time in 2020, but the presumption at this stage must be that if he is willing then he should be asked.