The dark shadow behind the Tories

There is no minority Howard will not turn on for electoral profit, even when people like his own family are involved
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The Independent Online

It was muffled because of the damp aftermath of the tsunami, but yesterday - if you listened closely - you could hear the starting gun for this year's general election campaign being fired.

Michael Howard launched the first part of the Tory manifesto in Wellingborough with a speech in which he strained to show empathy for "the forgotten majority" of British electors. He talked in angry tones about people who "work hard, save to buy their first home and take responsibility for their families", but are being excluded by a wicked "liberal elite" obsessed with "human rights" and "high taxes".

If you want to understand the negative strategy that echoed from the Midlands yesterday - the rage-fuelled, shock-jock approach that will dominate the election campaign - you have to look at a quiet, grey Aussie called Lynton Crosby. Few people have heard of him - but his appointment as Howard's chief election strategist last November was the most revealing moment of Michael Howard's leadership.

Crosby made his name as the election guru for Australia's hard-right Prime Minister, John Howard. He masterminded four relentlessly negative, often bigoted, election campaigns that brought the Liberal leader to victory - and he is carefully crafting a British version as you read this.

Crosby deliberately imported the language of the US-style "culture wars" into Australian politics. We know this drill from decades of Richard Littlejohn tantrums: rants about "the tyranny of political correctness", presenting the white majority as "bullied" and "afraid", implying there was a sinister "multicultural" elite who secretly "hate" their own country, and so endlessly on. Michael Howard was yesterday following the script first tested in Australia almost to the word.

And Crosby is prepared to go even further. In the 2001 election, John Howard was lagging in the polls and facing defeat at the hands of the Labour Party - so his government chose a crowd-pleasing policy of abusing refugees.

Despite taking a tiny fraction of asylum seekers compared to any European country, Australia's desert was already scarred with camps where innocent asylum-seekers were held for months on end. Some had sewn up their mouths and eyes in despair. But this was not enough; there was an election to win.

Three days after the launch of Howard's flailing election campaign, 438 refugees - many fleeing the Taliban - were found on a sinking ship off the coast of Australia, trying to get to a safe country. A Norwegian tanker called the Tampa picked them up and tried to bring them to shore - and at that moment, Howard and Crosby spotted an election opportunity. In a theatrical gesture, Howard refused them entry. His poll ratings began to rise.

One month later, a grossly overloaded fishing boat - carrying mostly Iraqi asylum-seekers - sank off the Australian coast. There is now some evidence that the Australian navy knew about the boat but, taking the Howard-Crosby rhetoric to its logical conclusion, they did nothing to rescue its human cargo. So 353 innocent people drowned in the freezing ocean - even more than died in the Madrid bombings.

As a final coup de theatre, the Australian government proceeded to slander the dead. Howard claimed the asylum-seekers had deliberately drowned their own children to "blackmail" Australia into offering them refuge. This claim was later proven to be a grotesque fabrication - but it was too late. Howard stomped to one of the ugliest landslide victories in democratic history.

Crosby bragged after the election: "Tampa had the effect of reinforcing in the minds of the Australian people the existing qualitative differences between John Howard and [opposition leader] Kim Beazley."

Yes. But no British politician in the 21st century would ever follow this lead, would they? Yesterday, Michael Howard singled out the Australian model for praise, and pledged his party to deal with asylum and immigration "just as they do in Australia".

He's clearly been listening to Crosby very closely - more than to any conscience that might be buried deep within his gnarled political soul. Michael Howard's parents came to this country as refugees. His grandmother died in the Nazi death camps. But who cares about such sentimental concerns when there are marginal constituencies at stake?

Howard's original policy was to send asylum-seekers to "a distant island", but when this policy collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity, he began to boast that, if he were prime minister, Britain would trash the UN Convention on Refugees. Once a quota of 20,000 had been reached, Michael Howard's Britain would knowingly turn away legitimate asylum-seekers.

It's hard to think of an uglier moment in recent British politics than the sight of a party leader who would apparently be happy to consign his own grandmother to death if she were unlucky enough to be the 20,001st person to seek safety on British shores.

You can be sure Lynton Crosby will put this refugee-savaging policy at the heart of the British election campaign - but that isn't the only worrying habit he's associated with. In Australia, he has been widely linked with the phenomenon of "push polling". This is where political parties conduct a fake opinion poll in order to plant certain ideas in the electorate's mind.

George Bush's proxies, for example, are believed to have conducted push polls whenever Dubya was facing the electorate. Texan voters were asked what they thought about his gubernatorial rival, Ann Richards, being a lesbian (she wasn't). Primary voters were asked what they thought about his rival John McCain having a "black baby" (adopted) and his wife being a drug addict. (In fact, she had a painkiller addiction, long-since treated).

Crosby's business partner Mark Textor - now also working for the Tories - had to pay £34,000 along with others to a defeated Labour candidate in Australia in 1995.

Push polls had spread the bizarre lie that she was in favour of aborting foetuses at any point in a pregnancy, right up to the moment of birth.

The Tories have set up a large call centre in the Midlands - will they be conducting similar push polls? Labour and the Liberal Democrats should squeeze an abstemious pledge out of Howard now.

We must not underestimate Michael Howard and the election team he has assembled. Just two decades ago, Howard was running a campaign of extreme and vicious homophobia. He piloted Section 28 throughout the House of Commons, describing it as "necessary" to stop "the promotion of homosexuality to children".

The most base prejudices - that gay people seek to "recruit" or even abuse children - were pandered to. Teachers unions warned Howard that his law would make it impossible to deal with homophobic bullying, and it would drive some gay kids to suicide. He continued with his crusade regardless.

Today, he is running a campaign against refugees. There seems to be no minority group he will not turn on for electoral profit, even when people like his own family are involved.

Fasten your seat-belts. It's going to be a bumpy - and nasty - election.