The Wizard of OzHow the Crosby Gang Captured Conservative Politics
Max Colbert of The Citizens explores the decades-long influence of the notorious Australian political strategist
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As the ‘Partygate’ scandal and its resulting penalties began to present unavoidable obstacles for Boris Johnson’s administration, the clout of arguably the most influential Conservative operative in the business, Sir Lynton Crosby, began to make itself apparent in Westminster once again, with him reportedly attending morning meetings and having almost daily conversations with the Prime Minister.
Co-founder of the political campaigns machine CT Group (along with partner Mark Textor), Australian Crosby has worked on Conservative election campaigns and consulted for the party for years, helping to secure victories for David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson.
Crosby’s relationship with Johnson has been particularly close – helping to mastermind both his 2008 and 2012 mayoral campaigns, and the 2019 General Election victory. Despite Johnson’s political demise, however, Crosby remains a powerful player – both the man and his apprentices extending their influence into the deep recesses of Westminster, now making them a near-permanent feature of Conservative politics.
Crosby himself, who has been referred to as “ruthless”, was knighted by David Cameron in his 2015/16 New Year’s honours list for ‘political service’ after helping to spur the Old Etonian to victory. CTF Partners was paid £2.4 million for working on the election campaign.
Speaking at the time, Labour MP Jess Phillips said that the party had “lavished millions on their election campaign, including with Lynton Crosby’s firm, and he has since been richly rewarded with a knighthood”.
Crosby’s involvement with Johnson and the Conservatives cooled following the 2019 victory, after tensions were reported between him and Carrie Johnson. But, as the scandals swirled around the Prime Minister during the final months of his active premiership, the veteran strategist and those close to him have now re-emerged – the people Johnson called upon in his hour of need.
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And, since Johnson’s resignation, associates of Crosby have been hard at work spreading their influence – advising the leadership campaigns of Kemi Badenoch, Penny Mordaunt, Nadhim Zahawi, and now Liz Truss.
Notably, former CT Global Projects Officer Mark Fullbrook – who ran Boris Johnson’s leadership bid in 2019 – is now advising Liz Truss. Fullbrook had previously worked on the campaign of current Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi alongside another longstanding CT operative Matt Jackson. As Truss now seems set to achieve a decisive victory over her opponent Rishi Sunak, recent reports indicate that Fullbrook, a veteran in his own right, is privately calling MPs in Sunak’s camp, encouraging them to defect to team Truss.
Fullbrook has a long-standing history in Conservative campaigning circles, having worked as head of campaigning as far back as the John Major years, helping to devise the campaign that led to his 1992 victory, before joining the UK CT Group as a founding member.
Dead Cats, Barnacles, and Wedge Issues
Colloquially known in Australia as ‘The Wizard of Oz’ for his instrumental role in delivering four consecutive general election victories for Liberal Party leader John Howard, perhaps most famously Crosby is credited with pioneering the ‘dead cat’ strategy – a term described in a gushing Telegraph article written by Boris Johnson in 2013 as: “throwing a dead cat on the dining room table”.
Johnson went on to explain that: “I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend [Crosby], is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief”.
This brand of politics has arguably defined the Johnson years.
Famously this approach helped the Conservatives and Cameron to sweep an unsuspecting victory in 2015 when, orchestrated by Crosby, then-Defence Secretary Michael Fallon attacked Labour leader Ed Miliband by suggesting that he would scrap Trident to strike a deal with the SNP. The simple message dominated the news cycle, brought to life with an image of Miliband in then-SNP leader Alex Salmond’s pocket.
This strategy could well have also been a factor in the Prime Minister falsely accusing Labour Leader Keir Starmer of failing to prosecute Jimmy Saville when he was head of the Crown Prosecution Service. This claim caused outrage on social media while the Partygate scandal was at its height.
In mid-July, a leaked document obtained by ITV and drafted by CT Group contained a proposal entitled ‘Project Homer’, which outlined plans to create up to 50 new Conservative peers in Boris Johnson’s resignation honours list. The move would be unprecedented in modern times, and would heavily stack the Upper Chamber in favour of the Conservatives.
This plan – which CT Group insists was simply an early working copy of a discussion paper prepared for a think tank, intended for a small group of people – seems to deploy a similar strategy of distraction. Namely, it proposes making some of the House of Lords appointments so shocking (two of those proposed include former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries) that people will, it is hoped, become fixated by individual cases, ignoring the wider implications of the proposal.
The strategy also suggests appointing new peers from under-represented parts of the country, such as the north and midlands.
Yet this is far from the first time that Crosby and those within his orbit have sought to skew the norms of political campaigning.
During the 2019 General Election, the Conservatives employed the social media whizz kids Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, apprentices of Crosby’s firm.
When brought in to work on the campaign, the pair engaged in a series of controversial tactics to shift the balance of online campaigning to favour the Tories. The pair were behind the idea to change the Twitter handle of the Conservative Party account to ‘factcheckUK’ during one leader’s debate, also setting up a website made to look like the Labour Party manifesto. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Topham Guerin won a £3 million contract to work with the Cabinet Office on official Government messaging.
“You’ve got to surprise people. You’ve got to shock people. Unlock and arouse an emotion in people,” Guerin recommended, at a lecture on social media in May 2019.
Other CTF employees have also maintained prominent roles within the Johnson Government. Another Crosby protege who worked on the 2019 campaign and hired Topham Guerin, Isaac Levido, took over temporarily from Dominic Cummings when the latter had Coronavirus, and is credited with creating the Government’s “Stay At Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” slogan – in keeping with the Crosby playbook of simple, triad messaging.
Aside from ‘dead-catting’, the Crosby playbook reportedly centres around rallying ‘the base’, combined with aggressively targeting marginal seats and undecided voters, ‘wedge-issue’ politics designed to siphon off a proportion of your opponent’s support, and simple, repeated messaging without any excess fluff or extraneous policies, referred to as scraping “the barnacles off the boat”.
You play to the base with dog-whistle messaging; using phrases and concepts that have relevance within your hardcore group of supporters, but aren’t widely understood within the electoral as a whole – therefore reducing the risk of alienating other groups.
Meanwhile, Stephen Mills of Sydney University’s school of government has said of Crosby that “the game was all about marginals… and required fantastic skills of [voter] targeting”.
The Crosby ‘wedge-issue’ routine, also imported from his campaigning Down Under, is where the party promotes (or creates) divisive social issues, targeting a sympathetic section of the other party’s support. The actual issue in question scarcely matters, be it immigration, policing, trans rights, or taxes. The point is to divide and conquer your opponent while uniting your side under shared values.
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A good example of this in action would be the work senior Crosby ally David Canzini, who until late January worked for Crosby at CTF before being brought in to help Johnson’s crisis management in February 2022.
Since his arrival in Downing Street, Canzini – described by one Tory MP as a “f*cking hard man” – has reportedly been influential in the party’s more hardline stance towards ‘culture war’ issues such as trans rights and asylum.
According to The Spectator: “Johnson’s deputy chief of staff David Canzini, looking ahead to the next general election, has heralded the Rwanda [asylum] plan as an ideal wedge issue. Aides have been ordered to find more policies in their departments that divide the opposition.”
It has been reported that Canzini is likely to remain in Downing Street under Liz Truss, if she wins the Conservative leadership race.
So, while the Conservative Party undertakes its latest evolution, a key force in the party’s recent political strategy will remain. Truss has pledged to wean the party off Johnson’s brand of interventionist conservatism, but – with the influence of Crosby still entrenched in Downing Street – it seems unlikely that she will depart too radically from the current Prime Minister’s cultural agenda.
Divide and rule seems likely to be a governing force in the Conservative Party for some time to come.
This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.