Tories rehire strategist behind ‘racist’ London mayor campaign

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Controversial election strategist Lynton Crosby returns to the heart of the Conservative party for June general election

Lynton Crosby listens to Conservative London mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith address delegates at the annual Conservative party conference in Manchester, on 6 October 2015 (AFP)
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Wednesday 19 April 2017 11:13 UTC
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Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist who was behind a Conservative London election campaign dubbed "racist", is to spearhead the Conservative Party’s general election campaign.

Seen as the go-to Conservative election strategist, Crosby was behind Boris Johnson’s successful bid for mayor of London in 2008 and was able to deliver a surprise victory for David Cameron in the 2015 general election.

He will now be retained by the party after Theresa May called a snap election on Tuesday to be held on 8 June.

But his continued presence at the heart of the Conservative party is likely to raise eyebrows because of the apparent crudeness of his tactics.

Crosby, dubbed “the Wizard of Oz”, was widely reported to be behind Zac Goldsmith’s doomed and controversial bid for mayor of London in 2016.

What followed was a negative campaign that tried to capitalise on anti-Muslim sentiments by presenting Labour candidate Sadiq Khan - the eventual winner - as being linked to alleged "Islamic extremists".

“Are we really going to hand the world’s greatest city to a Labour party that thinks terrorists are its friends?” was the headline for an op-ed Goldsmith wrote in the run-up to the election which sat beside a picture of a bus ripped apart during the 7/7 attacks in London.

The campaign was deemed so controversial that a Conservative election candidate said the campaign was “racist” and declared that she was “disgusted and deeply upset by the intrusive, patronising and divisive tactics being used by the party in the mayoral race”, while conservative reporter Peter Oborne called it “the most repulsive I have ever seen as a political reporter”.

One Muslim imam from south London told Middle East Eye that he was made a “scapegoat” in Goldsmith's campaign and that the return of Crosby showed that the Conservatives “haven’t learnt from history”. 

During last year’s London mayoral elections, Suliman Gani was accused of supporting the Islamic State group by leading Conservatives including the prime minister before being linked to Sadiq Khan’s campaign - even though he had himself backed Conservative candidates in the past. 

He said the Crosby-backed campaign was responsible for “racist” campaign messaging and that “it backfired last time, it didn’t work”.

Gani, who has since received an apology from then prime minister David Cameron, added that he was "not interested in supporting the Tories again”.

But others have welcomed Crosby’s return to the Conservative fold.

“I have a clear view - I do not think that Lynton Crosby is an Islamophobe or a xenophobe,” said Mohammed Amin, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum.

"I have a clear view - I do not think that Lynton Crosby is an Islamophobe or a xenophobe"

- Mohammed Amin, Conservative Muslim Forum

Amin, who told MEE that he “deplored” Zac Golsmith’s campaign, said that while he was aware that Crosby’s consultancy Crosby Textor was involved in the campaign, Crosby may not have been directly involved.

“Lynton Crosby’s great strength is focusing on issues that really matter: health, employment, the economy,” he added.

Considered the Conservative election guru of choice, Crosby has also masterminded Conservative election campaigns in Canada - where he was accused of turning one woman’s bid to take her oath of citizenship in a niqab into an election sticking point - and Sri Lanka, while his insights are regularly sought by governments as far afield as New Zealand.

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His signature method is said to be the so-called “dead cat” manoeuvre which Boris Johnson (whose election campaign Crosby had led) once described as: “There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, 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.”

In a rare public appearance Crosby himself distilled one of his secrets: “At its absolute simplest, a campaign is simply finding out who will decide the outcome... where are they, what matters to them, and how do you reach them?”

According to a source reported by the Daily Mail, Crosby had once told Johnson that he should concentrate on traditional Tory voters instead of "f****** Muslims".

This year’s general election comes after an almost 20 percent spike in religious and racially motivated hate crimes was reported in the wake of the Brexit and London Mayoral election votes last year. Homophobic crimes also rose steeply.

At its absolute simplest, a campaign is simply finding out who will decide the outcome… where are they, what matters to them, and how do you reach them?

- Lynton Crosby

Amnesty International campaigns director Kerry Moscugiuri told the Independent at the time: “If accurate, these figures are deeply worrying, and they bear out our initial concerns that divisive political campaigning last summer gave licence to the expression of discriminatory views in a way we haven’t seen for decades.

“We had witnessed negative and sometimes toxic language being used in debates on refugees and migrant rights. The London mayor election and the EU referendum brought some of this to the surface, but there has been an insidious narrative developing for much longer."