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Last updated: May 10, 2013 5:56 pm
Not long after Lynton Crosby became the Tory party’s elections supremo in November, he received an open letter from Lord Ashcroft alerting him to the dangers of “becoming the story” in Westminster.
The party’s former deputy chairman, no stranger to negative headlines himself, wrote: “I’m sure you’ll get on with the job and stay out of the limelight.”
It was a prescient piece of advice. Last month, it was reported that Mr Crosby had had open rows with senior Tory ministers, including George Osborne, the chancellor, and Grant Shapps, party chairman.
Now questions over Mr Crosby and his business interests have threatened to overshadow one of the big setpiece events of the political calendar. Wednesday’s Queen’s Speech, which set out the government’s legislative agenda, omitted plans for plain cigarette packaging, minimum alcohol pricing and a compulsory register of lobbyists.
Senior party figures told the Financial Times a fortnight ago that this was inspired by Mr Crosby’s advice to “scrape the barnacles off the hull of the boat” – in other words drop unnecessary policies.
However, this week a row blew up when it emerged that Crosby Textor, his consultancy, had in Australia advised the tobacco and alcohol industry on how to fight off similar regulations.
As a result, David Cameron, prime minister, faced questions from MPs from all main political parties over whether this was merely a coincidence.
Sarah Wollaston, a Tory backbencher, asked on Twitter whether Mr Crosby “still has any connections to lobbying firms which act for alcohol and tobacco”.
It has since emerged that Mr Crosby’s consultancy has advised the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, an oil and gas industry group some of whose members have interests in the UK.
These could potentially stand to benefit from UK government decisions – Mr Osborne has already given tax breaks to shale gas and North Sea drilling.
The questions over Mr Crosby’s role triggered Kevin Barron, a Labour MP, to write to Mr Cameron asking the prime minister to clarify his adviser’s position.
At the heart of the issue is the fact that the Australian polling expert, who won elections for John Howard, former Australian prime minister, and London mayor Boris Johnson, works for the Tories only for five or six days a month.
The rest of the time he is free to work for his company. Crosby Textor’s website does not list its clients but some are shown on the New South Wales register of lobbyists. They include the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia and Lend Lease, a property group.
In the UK, industry executives say the firm has advised Westfield, the shopping mall company, and The City UK, a support group for the banking industry which confirmed it had used CTF Partners – part of Crosby Textor – to conduct “consumer research”.
By contrast, all Downing Street officials and senior ministers have to drop or freeze their business interests when entering government to avoid the suggestion of conflicts of interest. Downing St said Mr Crosby had “never lobbied Mr Cameron on anything”, pointing out he had been hired by the Tories and not by the government.
But a government spokesman refused to say whether Mr Crosby had been at meetings where the contents of the Queen’s Speech were discussed.
On Thursday he said Mr Crosby “does not work from Downing St” and had neither a desk nor a pass at the heart of the government.
This, however, contradicted a party spokesman who a week earlier had described Mr Crosby as working in Conservative Central Office and Downing St.
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