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Could Isaac Levido Return the Conservatives to Power Again Against All the Odds?

With the Conservatives’ general election strategy in the hands of the ‘Wizard of Oz’, it’s likely to be one of the most vicious campaigns the UK has ever seen. Tom Scott reports

Isaac Levido arrives in Downing Street in 2020. Photo: Tommy London/Alamy

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As the General Election exit poll was announced just after 10 pm on the evening of 12 December 2019, indicating a crushing defeat for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, staffers at Conservative campaign headquarters in Westminster began chanting a name to the tune of The White Stripes’ anthem ‘Seven Nation Army’: “Oh, Isaac Levido…”

It was not just a taunt at Corbyn, whose name had similarly been chanted to that tune by crowds of adoring supporters, but the Conservative Party election team was in no doubt that it was Levido’s work as its campaign director that had delivered Boris Johnson’s landslide.

Four years later, the party is once again putting its faith in the 39-year-old Australian wunderkind now often referred to as “the Wizard of Oz”. 

So who is Isaac Levido and what is his strategy to return the Conservatives to power against all the odds? 

The Protégé

For a man with such a formidable reputation, Levido keeps a low profile and grants few interviews. Those he does give tend to offer the same barebones story about his career. And since his reputation, both as a political strategist and a corporate lobbyist, is built largely around his mastery of the ‘dark arts’, his preference for the shadows could be seen as very much on-brand. 

Levido does, however, cultivate a fierce sense of personal loyalty among those who work for him. After the 2019 election victory, he presented gifts to every member of his core campaign team, including a pair of cufflinks engraved with the number of additional Conservative seats they had helped to win. 

Levido grew up in Port Macquarie in New South Wales, a town founded as a brutal penal colony for convicts but now a quiet coastal resort favoured by retirees from Sydney and younger professionals escaping from the big city some four hours’ drive south.

The son of a lawyer and local councillor for the Australian Liberal Party (which is much more right-wing than its name might suggest), Levido gained his first taste of campaigning in the US, where he completed a master’s degree in American government at Georgetown University. 

While in Washington, he cut his teeth on Republican senatorial campaigns before landing a junior post at Australia’s Washington embassy.

His career took a decisive turn in 2013, when he approached the notorious Australian lobbyist and political fixer Lynton Crosby – the original “Wizard of Oz” – to ask for a job. Crosby liked what he saw and gave him one, at the Washington office of his lobbying outfit CTF Partners (“CTF” is from the partners’ names: Lynton Crosby, Mark Textor and Mark Fullbrook). 

Little is known about who or what Levido was lobbying for in Washington, but CTF appears to have been none too fussy about its clients, provided they paid well, and the firm worked extensively for both Big Tobacco and major fossil fuel and mining interests. 

In 2019, Crosby’s successor company, the C|T Group (for which Levido also worked), was revealed to have mounted a major ‘astroturfing’ operation for the multinational mining company Glencore, aimed at undermining the transition to renewable energy and influencing politicians to favour continued large-scale coal mining (unethical as this was, astroturfing is not in itself illegal) .

By the time Levido joined CTF, Crosby was already close to the British Conservative Party, having managed Michael Howard’s unsuccessful general election campaign in 2005, and then helped David Cameron to power in 2010. 

He was particularly close to Boris Johnson, whose successful campaigns as Mayor of London he had directed in 2008 and 2012. 

For Crosby, the line between politics and corporate lobbying has always been blurred to the point of invisibility, and his high-level political access has no doubt been a big selling point for his corporate clients. 

When it comes to combining politics with the pursuit of personal profit, Isaac Levido has clearly learned a great deal from his mentor.


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The 2019 General Election Campaign

In 2013, after Cameron’s Government dropped a plan to remove branding from cigarette packets, it emerged that CTF was working for Philip Morris International, the world’s largest tobacco company. 

Former Liberal Democrat Health Minister Paul Burstow said: “Lynton Crosby cannot remain at the heart of government while he is also serving the interests of the tobacco industry. If he does not go, the Prime Minister should sack him.” 

Crosby furiously rebutted “any claim that I have sought to improperly use my position as part-time campaign advisor to the Conservative Party”. It later emerged that he had lobbied Conservative minister Lord Marland for Philip Morris, albeit just before taking up his political role with the party. CTF partners told the Guardian that there was “no conflict of interest” because he was not working for the Conservative Party at the time. 

Further questions were raised over Crosby’s close relationship with Johnson when the lobbyist accompanied the London Mayor on a trip to the United Arab Emirates to meet ultra-wealthy Gulf business people, during which he funded a networking dinner and paid for Johnson to fly back to London mid-trip so that he could be at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral. 

Then Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston observedm of lobbying in general: “I think those lobbyists with roles at the heart of any party should have to reveal their major clients, and that includes Lynton Crosby.”

None of this was likely to deter Johnson, who greatly valued Crosby’s political services – not least his ability to use ‘dead cat’ techniques to distract voters from issues that might not play well.

That the relationship was mutually beneficial was illustrated in 2019, when CTF Partners donated more than £20,000 towards Johnson’s campaign for the Conservative leadership.

But it was Levido, rather than Crosby, who stepped into the lead campaign role for Johnson in the subsequent general election, at the invitation of Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings. By this time, Levido had already worked alongside Crosby at Conservative Party HQ on the 2015 General Election, as well on Theresa May’s 2017 campaign. 

“I learned a huge, huge deal from him,” Levido told The Times in 2020. “I owe him a great amount. His outstanding success speaks for itself. You want to learn as much from them when they’re instructing you to do something as you do when you’re observing them undertake their role.”

The 2019 General Election campaign saw Levido deploy the full range of ‘attack, divide and distract’ techniques he had learned from Crosby, as well as some online tactics of the kind that had proved effective earlier in the year to help the Australian Liberal Party leader Scott Morrisson pull off a surprise election win.

These included setting up a misleading website under the domain name and paying Google to make it more likely that voters would find this rather than Labour’s actual manifesto; editing a video of then Shadow Foreign Secretary Keir Starmer to make it appear that he couldn’t answer a question on Brexit; and deceptively rebranding the Twitter account of the Conservative Party Press Office as a fact-checking site during a live TV debate between Johnson and Corbyn. 

These digital stunts were delivered by Topham Guerin, a firm run by two young New Zealanders with whom Levido and Crosby had worked in Australia and New Zealand.

But the main thrust of the social media ‘battle of the thumbs’ was to put out a constant stream of so-called ‘boomer memes’, also produced by Topham Guerin, with two aims: to hammer home Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” slogan and to denigrate Jeremy Corbyn. 

The independent fact-checking service Full Fact found that 88% of the Facebook ads posted by the Conservative campaign in the first four days of December 2019 were misleading. Interviewed in 2019, Levido said he was “quite proud” of the digital campaign, which he described as “disruptive” and “edgy”.

An anonymous source who worked alongside Levido on Scott Morrison’s campaign told the Sydney Morning Herald how the same constant flow of crude memes had worked for that: “We’d make them really basic and deliberately lame because they’d get shares and lift our reach; that made our reach for the harder political messages higher.” 

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Commercial Lobbying

Johnson’s landslide win, on top of Morrison’s unexpected victory earlier in the year, confirmed Levido’s reputation as an outstandingly effective political operative. It also earned him an OBE for political services in the Queen’s 2020 Birthday Honours List. 

The next step for Levido was to capitalise on this reputation in the commercial sphere – much as his mentor Crosby had done so lucratively.

Just a month after Johnson entered Number 10, Levido set up his own commercial lobbying firm, Fleetwood Strategy Limited, together with Michael Brooks, another former Crosby protégé. Peter Dominiczak, a former political editor of The Telegraph was later brought on board as a director. 

Fleetwood’s website lists several other former senior government advisors and Conservative Party operatives as staffers, including: Ben Jafari (former special advisor to the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary), Henry Cook (a former senior advisor for five different government departments and a speechwriter for Johnson), and Georgia Hardisty (former assistant to the Conservative Party campaign director). Fleetwood’s team also includes a former Labour Party and trade union operative, Melantha Chittenden – a sign, perhaps, that Levido is hedging his bets.

In March 2020, Levido was called on once again by Johnson and Cummings – this time to manage public communications around the Coronavirus pandemic.

Perhaps mindful of the conflict of interest accusations that had surrounded Crosby, Levido temporarily stepped down as a director of Fleetwood while he took up this position in Downing Street. But his role at the heart of government was surely useful in cementing relationships with key government decision-makers of the sort that can be helpful to corporate lobbyists.

By mid-2023, Fleetwood’s client list as disclosed to the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists was short but impressive, with its clients comprising: Airbnb, infrastructure group Balfour Beatty, crypto-currency platform Luno, and data analytics corporation Palantir, which had revenues of nearly €2 billion in 2022. 

(Fleetwood is not registered with the Public Relations and Communications Association, which demands higher levels of transparency from its members and has called for reform of the current legal framework governing lobbying).

Balfour Beatty is a member of the ‘Build Back Better Council’ established by Johnson and a very considerable recipient of multi-million pound government contracts – most recently for the £1.3 billion A66 Northern Trans-Pennine upgrade project.

But it is Levido’s and Fleetwood’s relationship with Palantir – the data giant co-founded and still chaired by far-right US billionaire and Donald Trump campaign donor Peter Thiel – that has attracted most controversy. Accused by campaigners of involvement in multiple human rights abuses, Palantir (which has always denied such accusations) was last week awarded a £330 million contract to create a “federated data platform” for the NHS – a development the British Medical Association described as “deeply worrying”. 

The services offered to clients by Fleetwood Strategy include “government engagement” – but the extent to which such engagement played a role in helping to land this deal is not known. 

Palantir’s initial introduction to the lucrative world of UK Government contracts had come some time earlier, when the former head of MI6, Sir John Sawers –  the founder of another corporate consultancy, Newbridge Advisory –  introduced Palantir’s CEO to a senior Cabinet Office official in 2019. The company went on to win a £27 million contract to process border and customs data post-Brexit – a contract that was not put out to tender.

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Weaponising Fear

With Labour’s lead in the polls looking all but unassailable, Isaac Levido will find his electioneering skills tested to the full in the months ahead. But Scott Morrison’s 2019 victory in Australia also looked highly unlikely just a few months before it occurred. So what will Levido’s strategy be?

Some early indications came in the shape of Rishi Sunak’s rowing back on the UK’s climate commitments and Jeremy Hunt’s claim to be cutting taxes in his autumn statement. Fear of voters being hit in their pockets by government action to reduce emissions, and by higher taxes, will no doubt be part of the recipe. 

It seems probable that it was Levido who weaponised anxiety over ultra-low emission zones (ULEZ) to narrowly win the Uxbridge by-election for the Conservatives in August, as Byline Times reported at the time. As an investigation by Valent Projects has detailed, a very large amount of money was spent on social media manipulation, including the creation of thousands of inauthentic accounts, to rile voters up about ULEZ ahead of this by-election, by persons unknown. It is highly likely that we will be seeing a lot more of such online manipulation in the run-up to the next general election.

Stirring fear and resentment of immigrants and asylum-seekers is also likely to be a major feature of the campaign, as it was for Lynton Crosby in his successful effort to get Australia’s Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard re-elected in 2001. In that election, Howard falsely claimed that Afghan refugees arriving in boats were throwing their babies overboard as a means to ensure that they were rescued and granted asylum, following up this lie with full-page ads proclaiming: “We will decide who comes into this country.”

All the signs are that this will be an exceptionally dirty campaign, perhaps made even more so by the fact Levido’s influence and access as a lobbyist, in the UK at least, depends in part on him having congenial associates in government.  

But, as the careers of Lynton Crosby and his protégé illustrate, both corporate lobbying and political campaigning are now thoroughly transnational – and even when technically separated still deeply interconnected – businesses. Whatever the outcome of the UK election, Isaac Levido is unlikely to be short of clients willing to pay handsomely for his highly unusual skillset.

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