In his account of the 2015 election, Why the Tories Won, Tim Ross serves up a hefty slice of the gospel according to Lynton Crosby. The Conservative campaign manager, Ross reports, “demanded total control over the Conservative campaign…Crosby’s overriding preoccupation for political campaigns is to deliver ‘message discipline’. This means honing the election ‘messages’ until they lodge in people’s minds, and then repeating them remorselessly…Crosby’s influence went far beyond running a happy ship inside CCHQ, testing the party’s messages and enforcing discipline in the ranks. He designed and executed the election strategy that resulted in the Conservatives destroying their coalition partners”. Here endeth the lesson.
It will be fascinating to see what changes, if anything, and what remains the same, as Crosby returns to Matthew Parker Street two years on.
On the one hand, Theresa May’s own brand of conservatism certainly looks, at first glance, more congenial to Crosby than David Cameron’s. The former Prime Minister began his journey to Downing Street as a self-proclaimed “heir to Blair”, seeking “permission to be heard” from the non-Tory media, and with a focus on the most vulnerable people in society. This was not an ideal start from the point of view of the man who ran the Conservative campaign 15 years on. Or, as Ross puts it: “Crosby had serious doubts about Cameron’s motivation and appetite…’How do I know it’s not just some f*****g frolic for a rich bloke to do?’ he asked friends.”
May’s concentration on those voters who are “just about managing” looks, by contrast, much closer to Crosby’s interest in “people who work hard and play by the rules” – particularly if they live in the Midlands, Northern and Yorkshire marginals that will decide the election. He would say that he is less interested in any ideological agenda than where his polling leads him, but that he has instincts and prejudices is undeniable.
For example, it is no secret that he isn’t the EU’s biggest fan, and didn’t take on the gig of running the Remain campaign (which was wise). “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere,” the Prime Minister told the Conservative Party Conference last year. The Australian now resident in London would agree wholeheartedly, finding in May’s provincial, pro-grammar schools, immigration-sensitive, security-conscious Toryism a worldview apparently little different from his own.
On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s differences from the man who preceded her as party leader makes it less likely, at least on paper, that Crosby will have the same freedom of manoeuvre that he had in 2015 – for three main reasons. First, Cameron is a full ten years younger; George Osborne younger still. May is almost exactly the same age. (She was born on October 1 1956; Crosby on August 23 of the same year.) There will not be about this campaign, as there was two years, a sense of an older maestro taking two relative novices in hand.
Second, the Prime Minister is in a different political position to her predecessor. He was scrabbling for a majority; she is poised to extend it – perhaps into three figures. That may change as the election campaign goes on, but she begins it with real authority, including over the campaign chief she has re-engaged. Finally, her view of the world – co-shaped with Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, her co-chiefs of staff – is in some ways not so easily alignable with Crosby’s after all.
He has fought many campaigns with many centre-right politicians over the years, but it is unlikely that he has ever run one for a politician who applauds “the good that government can do”. The policy implications of this belief may turn out to be unproblematic for Crosby in practical terms. But mention of May’s top team is a reminder that they have well worked-out views – see Timothy’s columns for this site – and are experienced political campaigners.
Timothy was active in the Conservative campaign in Thanet South two years ago, as Michael Crick keeps reminding anyone who will listen. And as Mark Wallace wrote on this site two days ago, Stephen Parkinson, the Prime Minister’s Political Secretary, was Vote Leave’s National Organiser during the EU referendum campaign. He was also very active in helping to win the AV referendum for Cameron. Furthermore, May comes to this election with a recent but consistent set of soundbites: “burning injustices”…”our precious union”…and, above all, “a country that works for everyone, not for the privileged few”.
Finally, don’t forget that the Tory politician who Crosby is closest to is not the Prime Minister, but the Foreign Secretary. After all, he was poised last summer to run Johnson’s leadership campaign.
Crosby could turn out to have exactly the same sweep that he had in 2015; or his efforts could concentrate on his polling with Mark Textor, which was certainly effective last time round. ConservativeHome has a long-time record, under both its former editor and this one, of calling for Crosby’s full-time deployment. None the less, we were doubtful whether his narrowcasting on a few targets seats is capable of delivering a Tory landslide. Now we are about to find out. Crosby’s master-stroke two years ago was to sever the head off the Liberal Democrat snake – and most of the body too. One of his big tasks now will be to help deliver the same result against a far less promising background. It will be harder to spook centrist voers with the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.