The Wizard of Oz: Cameron's controversial campaign strategist grants a rare interview

Since Lynton Crosby was named as David Cameron's new campaign expert last autumn, speculation has been rife as to what his methods will do for British politics. Paola Totaro is granted a rare interview with the man Boris Johnson (a client) calls the Wizard of Oz.

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Indy Politics

It's 11.30 on a chilly winter morning and Lynton Crosby's Mayfair office is buzzing with thirtysomethings chatting on mobile phones.

Inside the conference room, an unnervingly, life-size cardboard cut-out of Boris Johnson stands abandoned in a corner while the wall above boasts a framed photograph of the Mayor, surrounded by muscular divers, atop a 10-metre Olympic diving board.

Johnson, dishevelled as always, is captured standing at the very edge of the platform, seemingly unfazed by the vertiginous height. Just as I peer to read the date on the picture, a distinctively Australian voice says: "Great shot isn't it? David Cameron was there too that day… but no way he'd go and stand up there".

Crosby, crisp shirt, no tie, has a wry smile on his face. No, it's more than a smile, it's the grin of a winner. This is the man dubbed 'The Wizard of Oz', a 'supreme master of the dark arts' who worked on four successive Conservative victories for John Howard in Australia before transferring his 'evil genius' to the UK.f

Crosby seemed to have lost his winning touch when his next political client and Prime Minister wannabe, Michael Howard, lost the election in 2005 – a considerable blip on the professional radar. Now, after orchestrating a second win for Tory Mayor Johnson in what is a traditionally Labour-voting city, a triumphant Crosby has been drafted back to Conservative HQ to help David Cameron – the fellow not brave enough to stand atop the Olympic diving ladder – win a second term at Number 10.

The notion that an Aussie, known universally for his "low tolerance of knob-heads" and a penchant for 'effing' as prefix to most nouns, has been recruited – at a reputed £200,000 a year – to run the campaigns of the nation's two best known Eton/Oxford Alpha males must surely amuse Crosby?

"Boris is very, very interesting. He seems to be one of the very few that can take people beyond politics…" he says languidly, before cutting off the end of his own sentence.

Settled behind the big table in his office conference room, Crosby leans back on his chair, seemingly relaxed, perhaps even a little too nonchalant. Notoriously wary and litigious when it comes to media attention, Crosby has taken more than a year to agree to an interview. There have been several false starts before this meeting and when our mooted second interview was due to be put into his diary, Crosby disappeared, failing to answer another email or telephone call. The sudden silence, odd even by political standards, makes sense a few weeks later when a well-sourced and strategically-placed story in the Telegraph heralds his controversial return to the Tory re-election nerve centre.

On this sunny morning, however, Crosby appears uncharacteristically happy to shoot the political breeze – even if he is careful to use Australia and its political leaders as the paradigm for his on-the-record observations.

Crosby says one of the most intriguing political differences between the UK and Australia is voters' expectations of their MPs.

"In Australia, MPs do a lot more constituency work, acting like quasi-social workers. When people come and say 'I have a problem', their expectation is that it will be fixed," he says.

"Here in the UK, there remains a more philosophical view… that you are sending to Westminster someone who will look at issues and 'represent me' but not that they fix everyday problems, rather they are more a delegate representing an area.

"MPs here hate the notion of being social workers. They will argue 'I'm not here to do that, I'm here to review legislation'. My view is that if people are paying your salary, if someone votes for you and I pay your salary, I decide what expectations I have, what I want of you and if that is what I want, you'd better do it."

The UK electorate, he believes, thinks rather less of its politicians, although he disagrees with my observation that the quality of British political debate is superior to its Antipodean equivalent.

"I don't think it is worse there… maybe the way they go about it can be a bit more aggressive. Politics here in the UK, at least for aficionados, is quite interesting but for others… I think there are too many people talking about it too much. There are too many commentators, too many newspapers, I think in the media here you have a monopoly situation with the BBC…" he says before an abrupt change of tack.

"I think it's different. The difference I might agree with you is if you look at the people involved in politics: there are more people with broader backgrounds involved in politics in the UK than there are in Australia. I don't know whether it endears people, though. People here have a more negative view of politicians than in Australia.

Where the two nations make the same mistakes, he says, is in the way political leaders conduct themselves: "It's all about politics and the political game. In Australia, all they are thinking about is the prospect for leadership and the best thing to maximise the chances of winning again given they are in a trough," he tells me.

"Political leaders are in deepest trouble the world over when the electorate turns off, stops engaging and stops listening, usually when the perception spreads that national policy decisions are being driven by the desire to retain office, not for the national interest…

"The world has moved on. People respond badly now, sensitivities and anger are heightened when times are tough. Voters are thinking, 'Geez, times are tough and here you are playing games'… Everything is about the next election, not about the nation."

David Cameron, are you listening?

In Britain, admiration for Lynton Crosby in some quarters – primarily the Conservative right – is almost Messianic.

His face – grey hair, merry eyes behind glasses, masculine jaw – is not familiar to Aussies or Britons and yet he has made power lists in both countries, most recently in the UK's Top 100 influential figures from the Right, published by the Daily Telegraph.

Even Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's supreme spin-meister, found it hard to put the boot in too hard: "When he ran the Michael Howard campaign – which was hopeless, by the way, truly dire – I got a travel-agent friend to mock me up two first-class Qantas single tickets to Sydney. I was going to deliver them on the morning of the election, to him and [business partner and pollster] Mark Textor," he tells me.

"In the end I decided to keep them. I didn't blame him for that campaign… [Michael] Howard felt comfortable with that approach, although Crosby played to his bad side I think… The time I met him we did a session at the London School of Economics together; he seemed an OK guy."

At work, Crosby is said to exude an iron-fisted calm and those that have worked with him, including his most vociferous, off-the-record critics, concede that in crisis, he is at his best.

"He starts very early, works very late. He is highly organised, has a detailed schedule and never panics. There is nothing overly clever about election campaigns but what is difficult is making sure constant discipline is maintained in the team and among the candidates and keeping everyone on message," says a senior Australian political figure who has worked closely with Crosby. "Lynton maintains an extraordinary organisational order in whatever circumstance."

During a telephone chat from his Thames-side City Hall office, Boris Johnson is breathless in his admiration. "He works it out with all of his strange algorithms, polling, part-sorcery, part-science, and he presents you with this stuff that makes you focus on the things that really matter.

"He makes sure you are really connecting with what you say, with what people really care about and that is a formidably important thing. He is very, very good at keeping you focused."

When Johnson and Crosby had their first dinner together in 2008, his soon-to-be strategist reportedly told him: "If you let us down, we'll cut your fucking knees off".

During the second campaign, Crosby softened and fell into the habit of calling his troops together for a debrief in the late afternoon – and throwing a pink cardigan to hail the person who performed best on the day.

On a day-to-day level, Johnson insists, Crosby is unmatched at "winnowing out the stuff that you might think is important but doesn't help you get the message across.

"I'll give you an example. I'd just built an absolutely brilliant cable car across the river [Thames]. It's a great success, everyone is enjoying it and it got great media coverage. But throughout the election campaign I was forbidden to mention the subject of the cable car. So, we talked about jobs, talked about growth, talked about the things that will make London the greatest city on Earth and so on."

That's hardly rocket-science advice, is it Mr Mayor?

"Look, I think you should let me put it this way: in 2012, after four years of deep, hard recession he had to sell an old Etonian, Bullingdon Tory to eight million Londoners who are going through a tough time. That was no mean feat of political sorcery… seriously, I can't praise him enough."

Even as a child, Crosby loved debating and drama, staging plays and performances in an old shed. Born in 1957 in Kadina, South Australia, he was the youngest of three children born to a cereal farmer. His parents adored him and according to his sister, Robyn, would "do anything for him". By all accounts, it was a happy and indulged childhood, although agriculture was not the young Crosby's thing and he took himself off to the University of Adelaide to study economics. After a stint as a market analyst for a petrol company, he went to work for several South Australian politicians.

Crosby has often made public fun of his one and only, youthful, unsuccessful tilt at election (in 1982) saying he managed to turn a marginal Liberal seat into a safe Labour one and that, with hindsight, "[I] wouldn't have voted for me".

A move to Queensland saw him begin work for the Liberal Party, quickly rising through the ranks. By 1996, Crosby had forged a key role beside a victorious John Howard, repeating the electoral magic two years later when he successfully targeted a raft of key marginal seats.

In 2001, there was another win, but this time at a terrible cost on the back of what became known as the Tampa Affair. The Howard government's claim that Afghan refugees had thrown their children overboard in a bid to blackmail their way into the country was famously disproved, a low in the Australian political discourse that has continued to haunt the retired Prime Minister and his electoral strategist to this day.

A year later, Crosby and his pollster partner, Mark Textor, moved to diversify beyond politics, establishing a corporate consultancy.

For Crosby's critics in the UK – most of them in the Tory left – Crosby's reputation for 'dog whistle' tactics is a big worry. With a track record pushing the envelope on sensitive issues like crime, public safety, law and order and immigration, even conservative observers like Peter Oborne, writing in the Telegraph, worry that Crosby's appointment will amount to a "public recantation" of the kinder, warmer Conservative image crafted and deployed after the big defeat in 2005.

Crosby himself appears to have very little interest in engaging in the 'Cameronian' project – and there is little doubt he holds solidly right-wing views. But placing Crosby at the centre of the political policy narrative – whether it be John Howard's in Australia or David Cameron's in the UK, is too easy. Crosby is primarily just a marketing man, a professional strategist and campaigner whose job is to shape the most presentable and attractive message for his candidate, not to pursue specific policies or agendas.

At a Conservatives in Communications event two weeks ago, Crosby was one of the star attractions, offering his take on the road to 2015. The strict test he applied to Boris and his cable car will apparently be repeated: before a leader will be allowed to raise an issue, he said, it will be screened (and polled) for voter resonance. Is Europe salient? What about gay marriage? Do people care more about immigration or House of Lords reform? Most importantly, MPs will be asked to show that they can clearly delineate their stance on an issue from an opponent. The messages will be simple and thematic: a 25 per cent slash to the deficit, record low interest rates, tax cuts for the lowest paid, pensions on the up, 850,000 new private sector jobs created, controlled immigration. The Government record is to be repeated ad nauseum.

As for the media, they are both mate and enemy, although the BBC got another tough assessment: "run by a socially progressive, out of touch, narrow elite". No point fighting it though, Crosby was reported to have mused to the room at large, best to perfect the message and stay on song.

So, does this role as a hot-shot salesman include being an exponent of 'dog whistle politics', the dark arts of subtle messages and appeals to voter prejudices that are never explicitly articulated?

Cheryl Kernot, former leader of the Australian Democrats, was in the UK during the 2005 election whenf the now infamous Tory billboards asked voters, 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?'. She says she immediately recognised Crosby and Textor's modus operandi, the style which, according to her, saw Australia re-focus voter attention on asylum seekers, on refugees and an "exploitation of basic instincts and fears of difference and latent prejudice".

"That was a brutalising Australian hand and I am fearful of what it means for British politics. You have one of the most robust civil democracies in the world. Here in Australia, 10 years of dog whistling and focusing of fear… really led to a demeaning of our democracy in a way that I'd hate to see in the UK."

Crosby demurs: "Our strength is we understand how to develop a strategy, generally built on research of some sort… so we do a lot of opinion polling – and not to tell you what to think – but to tell you 'OK, this is what people think, this is where you want to get, this is where you are now, this is what you need to do and these are the tools to do that'," he tells me.

"So it's a navigational tool, to show you where to get to, how and what tactics to use. The simple rule of politics for me has always been – and this stands true particularly now in hard times – that when in doubt, stand for something. If people do not believe you stand for something, you will be in trouble," he insists.

This will be music to the ears of Conservative MPs, like Robert Halfon, who champion a "more blue-collar-friendly conservatism". They argue Crosby is the man to re-focus the party on the issues important to the grass roots, and if it is immigration or welfare or simply how to encourage the so-called 'strivers' over the 'skivers', then so be it.

"People feel we are not giving them ladders up, but we are not giving them a safety net either," he says.

Halfon first met Crosby during the doomed Michael Howard 2005 campaign, but is adamant the loss was not the Australian's fault because he was hired to sell a message – "immigration and that type of thing" – decided by others.

"I found him brilliant in what he did and he is exactly what it says on the tin. He is shrewd. He is cunning. He is clever. He explains things simply. And he is straight. Lynton got Boris re-elected a second time in a hostile climate with six months of bad news and with an economic crisis. And he did it in London, which is a hotchpotch of different views."

While Crosby is portrayed almost affectionately in the media in the UK – usually as a 'bare-knuckle' fighter or the bloke credited with injecting a bit of the Aussie 'mongrel' into Tory politics – it's a different story in Australia.

According to a former colleague, Crosby comes across as easy-going at first but deep down, can be "hard as nails": "I remember a loyal foot soldier who had been running the Melbourne office for quite some time. He called her in the night of a party and said, 'Don't bother coming to the party, tell people you are sick and can't make it'. That is how she was made redundant."

Crosby insists it was nowhere near as brutal, suggesting that the timing was unfortunate but the redundancy was economically necessary.

Few colleagues who worked with Crosby were willing to talk on the record, his name seeming to elicit fear: "He sues… if he doesn't like what is said," said one very senior former colleague.

"They nearly brought [news website] Crikey to its financial knees when they sued over a story claiming Crosby Textor had deliberately leaked damaging Liberal Party internal polling in 2007," said another.

"There are two theories about that leak: one that it was an accident, sent to the wrong person by a junior who sent the email. The other was that Crosby … thought it time for Howard to go and so manipulated information that would push him out," added a senior Federal political figure.

The so-called 'Secret Liberal dossier' was a political Exocet for John Howard. It found that voters believed his government had "given up" and become negative and poll-driven while Howard himself was viewed as "old and dishonest". Worse still, it also delivered the news that the electorate was looking to Labour's Kevin Rudd for "generational change".

Crosby Textor categorically denied anything to do with the leak and fought – and won – a court order for a detailed apology from Crikey. And it shut down any further public discussion about the file's provenance or its senders' motives. Ultimately, whatever the truth, the relationship between Howard and Crosby suffered and the former Prime Minister's biography, perhaps pointedly, contains just one line about his former chief strategist.

When I ask Mark Textor about the company's legal actions against journalists or political critics who have suggested the company uses 'push polling' techniques, he says candidly: "We object to opinions based on gossip. We just run professional, clinical and methodological approaches to clients' problems. We have a reputation to protect. And we will".

The duo recently celebrated 10 years in business together and had a big party at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Arts. Two Prime Ministers and several state premiers starred on a congratulations video while Boris Johnson described him as "The Crosbinator… a man who never lets an abusive thought form in his mind without immediately forming it into a text and sending it to the object of his wrath". Veterans of more than 200 commercial campaigns spanning 50 or more countries, they have worked in Iraq, pitched to work in Syria, have offices in Milan, Italy, as well as London and Australia – and that turnover is in the millions. According to Crosby, however, the "political work" might be "high profile but doesn't pay many of the bills: it is our heritage, so you do it…".

Colleagues say Crosby and Textor are good mates on the surface, as well as business partners. But they are also perceived as deeply competitive. One recalls a snow dome in the Melbourne office which had "Lynton's photo on one side and Tex on the other – we'd turn it around depending on who was due in to the office. People were so scared of them," she said.

"I think that in the wake of the Howard years, things just dried up for them. My sense of it was that they trade on the mystique that they are powerful and have a powerful network but it is a perception of reality… so much of it turned out to be smoke and mirrors. They say they can't talk about who their clients are – confidentiality – but you wonder."

Of the private Crosby, not being interviewed adds to the mystique. He has long been happily married to his wife, Dawn, also a former Liberal Party staffer; they are parents to two adult daughters and are now grandparents, too.

Friends say Crosby is witty, good company, loves a steak and a red wine or two, and is mad about theatre. In London, he has joined forces with Mark Fullbrook, former Head of Campaigns for the Conservatives, who is married to Tory MP, Lorraine Fullbrook. Crosby, however, is rarely seen in social news coverage. And while he returns to Australia regularly, the UK may well be home now.

Mark Textor reckons his business partner has rarely veered far from his core South Australian Methodist values, with hard work and commitment to family at the centre of his life.

But Textor also took great delight in revealing that his mate had a long-standing fascination with Dame Edna Everage, even "going to a party once" dressed as the housewives' friend. At his 50th birthday party, Dawn hired an impersonator to greet guests at the door – not one who played Dame Edna, but a Crosby lookalike.

"Oh and he was very good," laughed Textor.

In 2010, in the election that forced David Cameron and the Conservatives into bed with the Liberal Democrats, pundits including Boris Johnson's biographer, Andrew Gimson, concluded that victory slipped away because the Tories sounded "too vapid, too tentative, too polite".

"There is nothing vapid, tentative or polite about Crosby," noted Gimson: "He will insist that they work out what they are going to tell the voters, and then he will get them to tell it – with merciless consistency – for months on end."