An ‘evil genius’ who is a ‘master of the dark arts’, political strategist Sir Lynton Crosby possesses what is arguably the sharpest political mind in centre-right politics. Born in a rural South Australian town to farming parents, the once failed Liberal candidate was the mastermind behind election victories for John Howard and David Cameron, and convincing Londoners to vote – not once, but twice – for Boris Johnson. A Crosby campaign is an art in itself, whose questionable tactics often deliver victory.
His philosophy is simple. In a rare YouTube video of Crosby delivering a campaign masterclass to British charity, Patchwork Foundation, he states that “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.” With a strategy of identifying key target (often marginal) seats and segmenting voters into specific micro-groups, Crosby, then Federal Director of the Liberal Party, was widely credited with returning John Howard as Prime Minister in the 1998 Federal Election despite losing the popular vote. In 2002, Crosby recalled that seeing the exit polls made “his stomach sink like no other moment” in his then 28 year career in politics. It was this strategy of minimising the swings in marginal seats that delivered victory. This same strategy has been replicated, including in the 2015 British General Election, and often with great success.
After winning the London Mayorship twice in 2008 and 2012, Johnson is effused with praise for his campaign manager, declaring Crosby to be “the best campaign manager… ever”. Coincidentally, it was also Johnson, as only he does, who let slip of Crosby’s ‘Dead Cat’ manoeuvre whilst railing against the European Union in a column for the UK’s Daily Telegraph. Again, the principle of the dead cat manoeuvre is simple. When in a sticky situation, throw a dead cat on the table because, according to Johnson’s “Australian friend”, the discussion will turn towards the dead cat as it will be “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.” It was Crosby who turned the tables on Ed Miliband, during the last British General Election, by throwing a dead cat on the table. 10 days into the election and with the consequences of the Conservatives’ austerity programme gaining traction, the Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, warned that Miliband would “stab Britain in the back” over its nuclear defence system in the same way he backstabbed his brother to gain the leadership of the Labour Party. The expressionless Fallon was the ideal choice, as Crosby has warned that any negative attacks must be clear and contrasting and cannot be hysterical or personal. In this case, it worked as focus immediately switched to Miliband.
Perhaps the dirtiest and most controversial tactic of a classic Crosby campaign is its dog-whistling tactic. Resigning as Federal Director of the Liberal Party in 2002, Crosby formed his own consulting firm which was a key adviser to the Conservatives’ Zac Goldsmith’s bid for London Mayor last year. It would be a campaign tainted by accusations of dog-whistling and racist, divisive politics. Often used in the context of immigration and religion, dog-whistling involves the use of language that have two interpretations – one for the general public and another for a specific targeted group, demographic or race as part of Crosby’s signature segmentation of voters. In the biggest example, among others, the Goldsmith campaign had tried to link Labour’s Sadiq Khan, to a radical Islamic cleric and Islamic extremism by association as a result of Khan’s Muslim faith and once sharing a stage with that cleric in an attempt to energise the Conservative base. Dog-whistling, if done right, should be subtle and hard to identify. Crosby, not directly involved with Goldsmith’s campaign, has become the master of dog-whistling with examples ranging from Stephen Harper’s “old-stock Canadians” comment to Howard’s “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” Dog-whistling often drives division in communities with an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Slammed by Miliband as “gutter politics”, it would later emerge that Goldsmith was also pictured with the same cleric, and would go on to lose to Khan.
At the end of the day, elections are won or lost in the backroom and leaders serve as puppets of their campaign managers. For Crosby, he has mastered the art of election campaigns. More often than not, he wins. But in the end, it will be the enticement of power who will beat even the most moral and principled leader into line. After all, as Machiavelli said, maybe the end does justify the means.
Words by Ian Tan, art by Harry Peter Sanderson