It doesn't seem to have occured to Lynton Crosby's critics that he could both have a commercial interest in a policy and believe that it's right for the Conservatives. The decision not to impose plain packaging on cigarette packets is a good example. The Australian strategist is an experienced communicator of conventional conservatism – of the immigration-restricting, welfare-capping, tax-cutting, patriotism-proclaiming variety – and believes that anything which gets in its way must be cleared out.
David Cameron's Big Society instincts, with their fondess for miniumum alcohol pricing and cigarette plain packaging, might have been deliberately drawn up to drive our antipodean visitor nuts. (Remember Cameron's opposition attack on W.H.Smith for its offering of chocolate oranges at checkouts rather than real oranges.) There is a connection between Crosby's talent for no-nonsense advice, the sharper Tory profile of the past few months and the Conservative poll recovery. The Independent's last poll of polls found the gap between the two main parties closing. Today's Guardian ICM poll finds that it has closed altogether.
None the less, the Crosby rumpus, now staggering on into its fourth day, helps to show why stories about the Conservative Party and conflicting interests are fissile. David Cameron denies that Crosby lobbied him over the packaging decision, and there is no doubt that he's telling the truth. (The latter would be mad to have done so, which he most certainly is not.) But Downing Street's careful form of words invites questions. It doesn't exclude Crosby having offered a view when the subject was raised – he wouldn't have been doing his job if he didn't – and herein lies the problem. Crosby isn't working for the Party full-time. He is also employed by other clients.
This allows its opponents open-ended media hits. All they have to do is to track down one of Crosby's clients, find a Government decision that might look related to its interests, and…bingo! The origins of this mess lie not with Crosby himself – who wants simply to earn more money, just like the rest of us – but with David Cameron and the Conservative leadership. Very simply, Crosby was shipped in at a time when Number 10 was desparate to have him. The weakness in Cameron's strategic thinking and campaigning, which bungled the last election campaign and at times has almost paralysed the Government, had caught up with him again.
It has never been clear who in Downing Street's changing cast – Steve Hilton, Andy Coulson, Ed Llewellyn, Andrew Cooper – gives the Cameron enteprise strategic direction. The party's ratings had been hit hard during the period between George Osborne's 2012 budget and the same sex marriage bill. The advice of this site was to pay Crosby "whatever it takes" (Tim Montgomerie) and to put him completely in charge (myself). This is because strategists of Crosby's quality are hard to find. Britain doesn't yet have a domestic equivalent on the centre-right, although a younger generation of campaigners are coming through.
But in its hurry to get him, Downing Street tried to have its cake and eat it – it hired Crosby, but not exclusively. In short, he wasn't put completely in charge and (we must presume) wasn't paid whatever it takes. The conflict of interest rubik cube wasn't put in order. Hence the present imbroglio. When Grant Shapps says that Crosby advises on strategy not policy, it isn't easy to see where one ends and another begins. That new laws will require lobbyists to declare their clients makes the questions being hurled at Number 10 even harder to answer. If the Prime Minister believes that lobbyists should act in this way, shouldn't Crosby do so now?
However, the publication of those interests wouldn't stop the run of stories and speculation – about potential conflicts of interest when Crosby meets Cabinet Ministers privately, about the same when he presents research to the Party, and so on. There are three approaches to the problem. The first is to let both the Party's and Crosby's standing be carried away downstream by a torrent of hostile stories, to the benefit only of Labour and the enemies of both. The second is to let Crosby go altogether, to the delight and gain of Ed Miliband (not to mention Nick Clegg). His departure from CCHQ would, once again, risk letting it drift.
The third is to pay Crosby whatever it takes (to drop his other clients, that is) and to put him completely in charge. No more conflicts of interest, real or imagined. No Chinese wall between Downing Street – where Crosby is reported not to have a desk – and CCHQ. No more distractions at a time when Miliband is desparate to paint the Conservatives as the party of Big Money. All the benefits of Crosby's authority and energy. Until or unless this is tried, Number 10 is open to the charge that it has made almost as big a mess with Crosby as it did with Coulson.