Conservative modernisers are bracing themselves for renewed attacks on the Tories as “the nasty party” following the news that David Cameron has appointed Lynton Crosby, a controversial Australian political consultant, to run the Tories’ 2015 general election campaign.
Some modernisers fear the re-hiring of the man who ran the party’s 2005 election campaign, during which he was criticised for sending coded “dog-whistle” messages to key voters on immigration, signals a shift to the right and another nail in the coffin of the modernisation programme of Cameron’s early leadership.
The Prime Minister’s aides dismissed the fears last night, insisting that Mr Crosby’s role would be to implement a “centre-ground” campaign devised and headed by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, George Osborne. They expect him to bolster the Tories’ appeal to blue-collar workers and the “strivers” of an “aspiration nation” Mr Cameron will target as he tries to win an overall majority.
The plain-speaking Australian is regarded as a brilliant strategist who sticks to his plan and is not diverted by day-to-day headlines. He is likely to be paid hundreds of thousands of pounds in line with the advice of Boris Johnson, whom he twice helped win election as Mayor of London, who said the Tories should “break the piggy bank” to hire him.
Mr Crosby’s ability to attract controversy was highlighted yesterday when it was reported that he urged Mr Johnson to concentrate on Tory voters rather than “f****ng Muslims” during this year’s mayoral campaign. Mr Crosby insisted he had “absolutely no recollection” of using the phrase.
The consultant, dubbed the “Wizard of Oz” helped John Howard, leader of Australia’s conservative Liberal Party, win four elections, often playing the immigration card. Lord Ashcroft, the former deputy Tory chairman, recently warned that hiring him for the party’s 2015 campaign would be a recipe for “conflict and confusion”.
Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, confirmed that Mr Crosby would start work as consultant “campaign manager” early next year – initially on a part-time basis. He said he had spoken about the alleged comments with the strategist, who assured him that he had “no recollection of this at all”.
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Mr Shapps denied there was any conflict of interest because of the clients of Mr Crosby’s political consultancy business.
Mr Shapps confirmed that half of the 40 winnable seats the Tories will try to gain at the next election are currently held by the Liberal Democrats, which could fuel Coalition tensions. “I want Conservatives to win in every seat in the country and I don’t really mind who the opposition is.
We need to win those seats if we are going to form the next government and have an outright majority and do some of the things this country desperately needs,” he said. “I do not see it as a personal vendetta against the Liberal Democrats.”