I wrote last week that Lyton Crosby should first drop his other clients, and then take complete charge of the Conservative campaign machine – as Tim Montgomerie and I have recommended from the outset. The next day, the Daily Telegraph reported senior Conservatives as saying that there is a "working assumption" that this will happen, and that the strategist is “not averse” to working exclusively for the Party in
the 15 months before the next general election. Boris Johnson, for whom the Crosby did such effective work, has recommended that the Party kill the fatted calf, push the boat out and do "whatever it takes" – in other words, pay the strategist enough to make it worth his while to put his other clients aside until June 2015.
Yesterday's publication of Crosby's terms of engagement and statement by the Cabinet Secretary can thus be read as part of a holding position. Crosby confimed that he hadn't discussed tobacco with the Prime Minister (as was obvious from the start) and that he hasn't used his position as a campaign adviser improperly (ditto). Sir Jeremy Heywood said that the strategist hasn't influenced policy on alcohol or energy either, and repeated Downing
Street’s assurance that he does not
meet civil servants. He also published the Party's terms of engagement with Crosby. These bar him from lobbying the Government or claiming privileged access.
This is all fine as far as it goes. This site has argued from the start that the strategist isn't the man to have acted improperly, and it can be argued that since he hasn't, the controversy should now end. Unfortunately, however, it won't. This is because the line between advice on policy (which Crosby doesn't give) and advice on strategy (which he certainly does) isn't the iron wall that Downing Street and CCHQ would like to assert: the one tends to meld into the other. And as long as the strategist has other clients, he is open to the charge of conflicts of interest – whether he publishes his client list or not.
The Crosby row is unambiguously a Westminster Village story – unlike, say, the Coulson affair, with its allegations of criminal conduct. For all Labour's efforts to stoke it, it hasn't impacted on voters. However, this may not be the case indefinitely. Until or unless Crosby goes full-time, the story won't go away, and its impact may deepen. It is rather like a graze that, though trivial in itself, is at risk of infection. To recap: the Party needs Crosby. He is a quality operator with conservative convictions – a combination more rare than it might be. His full-time appointment would quell this wearisome rumpus. The current halfway house compromise won't do so.