Monday 22 July 2013

The Lynton Crosby triple conflict of interest scandal

It may have escaped your notice (especially if you rely upon the right-wing press or the BBC for your news) that David Cameron's chief election strategist Lynton Crosby has been caught up in three separate conflicts of interest scandals in the space of little over a week. First it was the plain cigarette packaging U-turn, then it was George Osborne's huge tax break for the fracking industry, then it was his involvement with numerous private health companies that are straining at the leash to gobble up medical services as the Tory party savagely carve them off the still living corpus of the NHS.

I'll begin with a short biography of Lynton Crosby, then provide more details of the three blatant conflicts of interest that have been exposed, before concluding with some important questions.

Lynton Crosby is an Australian political strategist who is famed for his use of so-called "wedge strategies" designed to create divisions amongst opposition parties by deliberately focusing debate on a policy are in which the other party is divided. He is also a proponent of using narrative strategies aimed at instilling simplistic political idioms in the minds of the electorate and is a big fan of polling, leading to accusations from the Australian defence secretary Mike Kelly, that he uses the push-polling technique.

Crosby is also a lobbyist with his own lobbying company called Crosby Textor (which has a UK subsidiary called CTF Partners). The Crosby Textor website boasts "Our intimate understanding of the regulatory and political processes ... enables us to guide our clients discreetly through potentially high profile issues". If getting caught up in three conflicts of interest scandals in the space of a week is what they describe as "discreet" one wonders what on Earth their definition of "indiscreet" might be!

Crosby has worked for the UK Conservative party on several occasions and CTF partners is literally stuffed with Tory party wonks. He was the chief strategist for the Tories in the desperately poor 2005 General election, where the Tories were hammered for the third election in a row, despite the fact that their opponent Tony Blair was severely tarnished by his role in the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. However in his defence it is difficult to see how even the most gifted political strategist could have made a man like Michael Howard palatable to the British electorate.

Crosby had more success in 2008 when he helped Boris Johnson to become Mayor of London (at a cost to the Tory party of £140,000 for three months work). In 2012 Crosby was re-engaged by the Tory party as David Cameron's chief election strategist. 

The tobacco Industry
The first Lynton Crosby conflict of interest scandal broke in the wake of the Tory U-turn on their policy to introduce plain cigarette packaging. When it was revealed that Crosby's lobbying company represents Philip Morris, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world (on a contract worth something like £6 million), numerous Lib-Dem members of the government began calling for his resignation or sacking. Crosby managed to hold on for around a week, with David Cameron dodging questions and desperately trying to smokescreen the issue. Now that two more conflicts of interest have erupted, one would expect the calls for resignation and an official enquiry from the Labour opposition and the Lib-Dem coalition partners alike to reach fever pitch.

The fracking industry
Just a week or so after the cigarette packaging conflicts of interest scandal broke, Crosby was caught up in another lobbying scandal when George Osborne announced unprecedented tax breaks for the shale gas fracking industry, essentially slashing the tax rate for fracking operations in half, putting them at an enormous advantage compared to both conventional (coal, North Sea oil, natural gas) and renewable energy suppliers.

Within hours of Osborne's announcement it became clear that Crosby Textor represents Dart Energy, a firm that holds numerous shale gas extraction licences in Scotland. Another clear example of a Crosby Textor client benefiting from extremely favourable Tory party legislation.

Lynton Crosby is not the only person at the very heart of government to have massive vested interests in the shale gas fracking industry. The conflicts of interests of several top Tories, including George Osborne's father-in-law are detailed in this article.

The private health industry
Just one day after I wrote about Crosby's fracking conflict of interest, the Guardian broke the story that Crosby had yet another blatant conflict of interest. They revealed that at the same time the Tory party were working out how to carve open the NHS for mass privatisation, Textor Crosby were advising a group of private healthcare firms on how to exploit perceived failings in the NHS.

Some of the activities undertaken included the production of loaded-question surveys, seemingly in order to convince the members of the private healthcare group that privatisation of NHS services would actually be popular with the public.

Shortly after Crosby returned into the Tory fold, they launched their secretive backdoor NHS privatisation amendment to ensure that NHS services must be tendered to the lowest bidder, irrespective of concerns over quality or continuity of service. This backdoor privatisation legislation would certainly have been extremely beneficial to Crosby's private health clients had it not been spotted, campaigned against and eventually watered down.

As it stands, private health companies still stand to profit enormously from Tory reforms to the NHS.

Now I'm not a massive fan of the Labour shadow health minister Andy Burnham, however his reaction to the third Lynton Crosby conflicts of interest scandal is certainly worth repeating:

"It simply cannot be right to have people paid to lobby for private health organisations wandering round Downing Street when policies are being discussed that could benefit their clients. It is more evidence of a shocking conflict of interest that David Cameron has created at the heart of his government." - Andy Burnham
After three damning conflict of interest revelations in little over a week, there are many questions that need to be asked, not limited to the eight that I am about to pose.

1. How many more conflicts of interest does Lynton Crosby have?
2, How have so many brazen conflicts of interest been allowed to develop at the heart of a government, that claimed in 2010 that they would "regulate lobbying" and "ensure greater transparency" (Coalition Agreement, page 20)?
3. How is Lynton Crosby still in his job after these revelations of three egregious conflicts of interest?
4. How does the selection of two such appalling inappropriate advisers (in Andy Coulson and Lynton Crosby) reflect on David Cameron's leadership skills and judgement of character?
5. What kind of damage have these numerous conflict of interest revelations inflicted on the already desperately low public confidence in the political system?
6. What measures will be taken, if any, to force non-ministerial members of the government to fully declare their conflicts of interests and recuse themselves from participation in any area of government policy where these conflicts arise?
7. Will David Cameron's choice of replacement for Crosby be yet another individual that is appallingly unfit to be working at the heart of government?
8. Will David Cameron be taking his own advice and ensure that his party "take responsibility for their actions and show how they're going to be accountable for these actions" and ensure that this responsibility taking and accountability "goes all the way to the top of the organisation"?

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