Lynton Crosby: Maestro of the dark arts

Two weeks ago, the grandees of the Conservative Party gathered for a late-night champagne reception in suite 120 of The Grand hotel in Brighton, where the party was holding its spring conference. The man most in demand among the fundraisers and wealthy donors present was Lynton Crosby, the shadowy Australian credited with transforming the Tories' morale and prospects since being appointed their general election campaign director last October.

Two weeks ago, the grandees of the Conservative Party gathered for a late-night champagne reception in suite 120 of The Grand hotel in Brighton, where the party was holding its spring conference. The man most in demand among the fundraisers and wealthy donors present was Lynton Crosby, the shadowy Australian credited with transforming the Tories' morale and prospects since being appointed their general election campaign director last October.

In his dark pin-striped suit, a smiling and relaxed-looking Crosby could, at first glance, have been mistaken for a senior Tory MP. But when he spoke, Crosby's unmistakable drawl - and his tendency to call people "mate" - marked him out as an outsider. As he sipped vintage Pol Roget, Crosby confessed that he couldn't understand why anyone would go to Brighton for a holiday because there were no sandy beaches - and, typically, cracked a joke about the consequences of sunbathing nude on its shingle beach.

Yet there is much more to 48-year-old Crosby than his one-dimensional public image as a crude, red-necked Aussie who has taken the Conservative Party by the scruff of the neck and enabled it to claw its way back into an apparently lost game by raising issues such as asylum, immigration, illegal Gypsy camps, abortion, burglary and individual cases such as Margaret Dixon, the 69-year-old woman whose shoulder operation had been cancelled several times.

Labour claims that Crosby has imported "dog-whistle politics" into Britain. Used by the Australian Liberals, the Tories' sister party, it means sending a message which - the way a dog whistle is inaudible to humans - is heard only by the people at which it is aimed. Labour also accuses him of running a "wedge" campaign - dividing the support base of the rival party by targeting specific groups with messages on emotional issues such as abortion or immigration.

However the tactics are labelled, there is no doubt that Crosby has got under Labour's skin. Since the pre-election campaign began in January, he has helped the Tories to set the political agenda for a sustained period for the first time since Black Wednesday in 1992. He is credited with turning a rusty party machine into the Rolls-Royce it was in Margaret Thatcher's heyday.

Indeed, Labour has paid Crosby the ultimate back-handed compliment by calling for him to be sent back to Australia. It is also attacking Mark Textor, Crosby's partner in a market research and strategic consultancy, who arrived in Britain this week to lend a hand at Tory HQ, where he is known as "Text". Textor is said to be an advocate of "push polling" - telephoning voters on the pretext of conducting an opinion poll and then implanting damaging rumours about a rival candidate. Textor and two others had to pay £33,000 damages to Susan Robinson, Australian Labor Party candidate in a 1995 by-election, after a survey suggested she favoured abortion up to the ninth month of pregnancy. The Tories say Textor is not being paid and insist that all their polling is carried out within the rules.

A 1992 advert bearing Crosby's name, later withdrawn, said the Australian Labor government had "the blood of victims" such as murdered Cheree Richardson on its hands because of its early release scheme for prisoners. Then there was the damaging controversy over the Tampa, a Norwegian ship carrying 430 refugees, which John Howard turned away during the 2001 election amid claims that the passengers were throwing children overboard in a desperate attempt to gain entry to Australia. The claims were later shown to be wrong - but not until the saga had destabilised Labor and helped Howard to retain power.

The youngest of three children, Crosby was intent on escaping the cereal farming community of Kadina in South Australia in which he grew up. Following a degree at Adelaide University, he had planned a career in the Treasury but, after several jobs, stood for the Liberals in Queensland in 1982. He lost, decided to become a backroom boy, and rose to become the party's state secretary.

Married with two grown-up children, in 1996 he became the Liberals' deputy campaign director, helping John Howard to a surprise victory over Paul Keating, the Labor prime minister. John Howard has said: "There's no better political strategist in Australia." A commentator added: "If the word apparatchik did not exist, it would have to have been invented to describe Lynton Crosby." It is easy to see why Michael Howard wanted to recruit the man who helped his namesake to four successive victories. The Tory leader was deeply impressed by Crosby when he visited Australia as shadow foreign secretary after the 1997 election. They kept in touch and met up when Crosby made occasional visits to Britain. He gave informal advice to the Tories on an ad hoc basis. Last autumn, Mr Howard persuaded Crosby to come on board full time for the election.

His arrival put some noses out of joint - notably those of Lord (Maurice) Saatchi and Liam Fox, the party's co-chairmen, who thought they were running the election show. The early rivalries now seem to have cooled. The stuffy rabbit warren at Conservative Central Office in Smith Square, Westminster, well suited to cabals and plots, has symbolically been replaced by an open-plan office in nearby Victoria Street which Crosby has renamed "Conservative Campaign Headquarters".

Although initially viewed with caution by some new colleagues, Crosby soon won their confidence, giving the staffer who writes the best press release of the day a public herogram. His first priority was to inject some much-needed discipline. He was appalled that Tory frontbenchers ploughed their own furrow and floated policy ideas without thinking them through. With the party apparently heading for a third crushing defeat, Howard suspected that some shadow cabinet members were thinking more about the next Tory leadership election than the general election.

Crosby ordered such indiscipline to stop, and for all announcements to be properly road-tested, approved centrally and to be part of a coherent strategy. He will be appalled by the lack of discipline shown by Howard Flight, the Tory deputy chairman sacked on Thursday for suggesting that the party would opt for deeper spending cuts than it admits.

"Crosby is the perfect man for the job," says one close ally of Howard. "He has no agenda of his own. He is only interested in one thing - winning. He's not thinking about what happens after the election. He'll head back to Australia as soon as it's over."

Crosby is good at raising morale. With no sign of a breakthrough, staff members were gloomy as Christmas approached. He gave an impressive pep talk, telling them to ignore newspaper reports that the Tories could not win, have a good break and to "kick and kick hard" when they returned.

They kicked, and it seems to have worked. The Tories have a spring in their step. Confidence creates a virtuous circle and many Tories now believe they have a fighting chance of achieving a hung Parliament. True, the party has not yet made a breakthrough in the opinion polls. But its private polling in the 160-odd marginal seats where it is concentrating its fire is much more optimistic. "We can win," Crosby told Tory MPs during a Powerpoint presentation on Tuesday. "We have a strategy. This is it. We are sticking to it." Some commentators believe that Crosby knows the Tories cannot win in one go and is putting their energy into winning a smaller number of target seats on 5 May. This could explain the recent emphasis on issues more likely to appeal to natural Tories, in the hope that they turn out in greater numbers than Labour supporters.

When The Times claimed that Crosby had advised Howard the election could not be won, he started legal proceedings. Crosby told the paper that "second place" was not a phrase that entered his vocabulary. It eventually published a correction.

"What makes Lynton tick is winning," says a member of Howard's inner circle. "He has a very good feel for what is happening out there in the country. His instincts are very similar to Michael's. This is not Lynton Crosby's strategy. It is Michael Howard's strategy being executed by Lynton Crosby."

Crosby has won over all sections of the party, not just the right-wingers who are more inclined to preach to the Tory core vote. Alan Duncan, a moderniser and the shadow International Development Secretary, says: "I would be happy to go into the jungle with him. He's entirely a positive influence, a force for good. He has drawn all the elements together into a formidable team. People have found it invigorating."

Some moderates fear the "guerrilla tactics" adopted by Crosby may reinforce the Tories' image as the "nasty party", saying the Tories have left it very late to spell out a positive vision of what they are for. One former minister says: "There are things some of us would do differently. It's not perfect. But it's infinitely better than what we had before - which was no strategy at all. Lynton has been terrific in bringing a proper focus to what we are doing. For the first time for 15 years, we have a serious strategy."

To Westminster journalists used to trading gossip with political apparatchiks, Crosby is an elusive, even reclusive figure. He stands in the shadows at the back of the room during Tory press conferences, and does not do interviews. Friends say he is determined not to "become the story" like Alastair Campbell, his opposite number, recalled to Labour's colours for the election.

Crosby took a risk in signing up for the Tories when their prospects were at a low ebb. But he should now emerge from the election with his reputation intact: even if the Tories don't deprive Labour of its majority, they may yet "win" the campaign - and enough seats to give them hope of returning to power in 2009. Crosby, of course, has not given up hope for 2005. After all, in 1996 he helped an unfancied, apparently dull leader of the opposition unseat a clever, smiling Labor prime minister who was apparently on course for a comfortable victory. Sound familiar?

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 1957, Kadina, South Australia.

Family: Married to Dawn Crosby. Two daughters.

Education: Economics degree, University of Adelaide.

Career: 1982: Official with the Liberal Party in Queensland, after unsuccessful attempt to stand for a seat in the state parliament; 1996; deputy campaign director for Liberals; 1998: campaign director for Liberals and credited with John Howard's second victory; 2001: campaign director for Liberals; 2002: co-founded Crosby-Textor political consultancy; 2004: consultant to John Howard's election campaign.

He says...: "If that's your attitude I suggest you piss off right now." - to a young Tory who suggested Michael Howard's hopes of victory were doomed

They say...: "I would be happy to go into the jungle with him. He's entirely a positive influence, a force for good." - Alan Duncan, shadow International Development Secretary

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