When, in 2010, David Cameron described commercial Lobbying as the “next big scandal” in British politics, he drew attention to a strange truth. The work of the commercial lobbyist has all the necessary triggers for popular British outrage, not least because it’s conducted by a tightly networked elite behind closed doors. Despite this, the public and the press have never quite whipped themselves into requisite levels of ire for a proper witch hunt.
The practice is as old as sin itself – even the young Churchill dabbled in the dark arts for Burma Oil – and yet, for my money, the latest revelations surrounding Tory strategist Lynton Crosby will fizzle away into inconsequence. Labour have claimed his connections to the tobacco industry (his firm, Crosby Textor, advises tobacco companies) have led to his influencing policy around plain cigarette packaging. The Guardian today reveals that the firm has advised private healthcare providers on how to exploit weaknesses in the NHS. Neither of these developments is likely to cause irreparable damage.
Aside from anything else, the arrival of a new bundle of Royal joy into our lives is likely to prove a useful distraction for the Tories. Providing front-half filler for papers across the spectrum and a plethora of photo and comment ops for leading lights of Westminster, particularly Tories, government spinners will be looking to use this smokescreen to its fullest advantage.
Besides, the lobbying industry will by definition always have the PR edge. It’s a funny thing, but Lobbyists always seem to be immaculately turned out, beautifully spoken and have a gift for communicating their point effectively, reasonably and intelligibly. It’s almost like it’s their job or something. They aren’t heartfelt apologists – and neither should they be. They’re spinners, plain and simple. The best in the business.
Last week, we saw two wonderful spokespeople for the industry. I’ve expressed my grudging admiration for Lord Bell on this blog before. His opposition to the admittedly rather tame savaging of Sarah Wollaston MP on last Tuesday’s Newsnight was a masterclass of considered obfuscation. Repeatedly he drew attention to the lack of knowledge possessed by many critics of lobbying (“you don’t have the faintest idea what lobbyists get paid,” he acerbically observed at one stage). No matter that this lack of transparency is actually at the root of critics’ arguments; he looked unflappable and reasonable.
The other spokesperson was Crosby himself, who somehow managed to secure a gushing profile in the Telegraph last Wednesday. Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted a reference to Crosby’s big tobacco connections in para 15, but before this the piece praises a seemingly impossible range of attributes. Crosby, it tells us, is both blunt and subtle. Both shrewd and plain thinking. Both controversial and well-liked. Clearly, Crosby is a dab hand at wooing journalists. MPs, too, if the party’s much-noted morale boost during the term’s final PMQs is anything to go by.
I am not arguing that it’s impossible for this to become a true scandal – the press, and The Guardian and the Daily Mirror in particular, have been dogged in their pursuit of the truth. Politicians, as politicians will, have been doing their best to help them. Appearing on yesterday’s Andrew Marr Show, Cameron dodged a question about Crosby’s influence on policy, then answered Marr’s complaint with a haughty “well that’s the answer you’re getting,” an unfortunate outing for his old alter-ego Lord Flash-Heart. I’m fully aware that I am sticking my neck out here, but short of a major personal screw up by Crosby or Cameron I can’t see this going much further.
The PR mindset – which good Lobbyists most certainly possess – is all about controlling a narrative and, most importantly, facing down a storm with calm dismissal and mild good humour. Crosby and his ilk are more than capable of riding this one out for some time yet.