Revealed: Tory adviser accused of 'dirty tricks'

Michael Howard has been secretly taking advice from a controversial pollster repeatedly accused of "dirty tricks", The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Michael Howard has been secretly taking advice from a controversial pollster repeatedly accused of "dirty tricks", The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The Conservative leader engaged the services of Mark Textor, a market research expert, two months ago but did not publicise the appointment. His reticence may be explained by Mr Textor's colourful career as a controversial adviser to right-wing politicians in his native Australia.

Among the more serious allegations made against him is that he helped to distribute a damaging questionnaire falsely claiming an opponent supported the right to abortion at nine months.

Mr Textor and others apologised and paid out damages of around £34,000 to settle a court action brought by the Labor candidate who lost the 1995 Canberra by-election.

His critics claim the case proves that Mr Textor uses controversial "push-polling" - a technique that masks aggressive canvassing in the guise of opinion polling.

Typically, voters are led to believe they are being interviewed by independent opinion pollsters, while in fact party activists are using a survey to feed them negative propaganda about other candidates and parties.

He has been accused in the Australian Senate of being "obsessive about using the race card for maximum effect, including the unprecedented use of push-polling to inflame racial tension".

Mr Textor himself has repeatedly denied that he has used unethical practices. He said: "What the media calls push-polling is negative calling, when tens of thousands of people are rung up anonymously. I have never ... conducted what the Americans call negative calling."

The pollster, together with his business partner, Lynton Crosby, helped John Howard win a fourth successive victory for the right-wing Liberal Party in Australia's general election in October.

Michael Howard's press secretary last night confirmed that Mark Textor has been advising the Conservative leader on how to win the next election. He said he had met Mr Howard last week but had now returned to Australia.

He said: "Mark Textor enjoys a very high reputation in opinion polling in Australia. He will advise us occasionally on polling matters."

Fraser Kemp, Labour's deputy campaign chief, called on the Tory leader to dispense with Mr Textor's services.

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