Back in 2012, a buoyant Boris Johnson fresh from a second election victory as London Mayor gave some simple advice to Conservative MPs then stuck in coalition with the Lib Dems – “break the piggy bank” to hire his controversial strategist Lynton Crosby to run the Tory 2015 election campaign and “give him a pretty free hand to run things”.
The now Prime Minister added: “He would be demonised by the media as some sort of attack dog. He’s the soul of sweetness. He’s by no means as right wing as everybody will say.”
The Conservatives duly took his advice and Crosby helped deliver a surprise majority for David Cameron after a campaign that repeatedly contrasted the idea of their “long-term economic plan” with the fear of a Labour-SNP coalition. Crosby was subsequently knighted for political service.
Now Sir Lynton, the 65-year Australian has become known throughout the world for his effective and uncompromising political campaigning – earning the nickname ‘the Wizard of Oz’ in the process.
While he may be meeting The Yorkshire Post engaged on a slightly different mission – promoting his consultancy’s abilities to regional companies and local authorities as they establish a base in Leeds and Manchester – the methods are not dissimilar to those used to help politicians succeed.
“In any campaign to be effective you have to answer six questions – what is the result you want, who will determine that result, what matters to them, where are they, how do you influence them and what do you say to them,” Sir Lynton explains of his approach. “Every successful campaign can effectively answer those six questions.”
Sir Lynton says the 2015 victory was one of his most satisfying achievements. “There was a generally-held view that we couldn’t win and we wouldn’t win. There are plenty of armchair critics around and as I said after the election, ‘those who can do, those who can’t, commentate’. Winning that one against the odds was pretty rewarding.”
On a podcast with Sir Lynton last year, now Health Secretary Sajid Javid recalled how the strategist had urged Tory politicians to repeat their campaign mantra - ‘long-term economic plan’ - at every opportunity during that election.
Sir Lynton says while there was “much more” to the election success than repeating that message, “discipline is important” in reaching voters.
“In this day and age, we all know you have got your mobile phone, TV, there are so many sources of information the whole time. To have an impact on people your message needs to be consistent and personally relevant. If the message is wrong and you keep repeating it, you will be digging yourself further into the ground. It is not simply repeating a message but it is certainly true that a relevant message that is clear and coherent and reinforced will ultimately cut through because people hear so much.”
At a period when most observers were predicting another Coalition Government was on the cards, the Tory campaign put out a memorable attack poster showing Labour leader Ed Miliband in the pocket of the SNP’s Alex Salmond.
He says the idea for it came from a passing comment in a focus group. “I remember a lady in a cardigan in a Liberal Democrat seat who said ‘Imagine if Ed Miliband didn’t win in his own right and was propped up by Alex Salmond, they would be calling the shots and we would end up paying for it’,” he recalls.
Sir Lynton says the ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan at the 2019 election also came about as a result of a remark at a focus group - an arena where he feels you can learn much about human nature as well as the political weather.
“The really interesting thing is culturally there are differences around the world but you can be listening to a focus group in Iraq or Fiji or Bradford and the examples may be different but the ambitions are the same - a better life for them and their kids. They just want a system that works.
“The top local transport issue in the 2015 election was potholes. It wasn’t some big highfaulting thing, it was I’m sick of my car tyres falling off because there are holes in the ground.
“Decision makers have to make a choice. That decision maker can be a council, it can be a voter. You want people to make the choice you want for your client so you help frame the choice. ‘Long term economic plan’ was David Cameron as Prime Minister and George Osborne stewarding the economy or Ed Miliband in the pocket of Alex Salmond. It was a simple choice.”
Given his association with the Tories, it is perhaps a surprise he has created something of a political coalition for his latest venture as his consultancy C|T Group establishes a northern presence.
Members of the new operation who join him as he meets The Yorkshire Post at a Manchester hotel are Anna Wrigglesworth, a former regional organiser for Labour, Gavin Stollar, a former Liberal Democrat councillor, and Sean Anstee, the ex-Conservative leader of Trafford Council.
He says the political spread has come about by chance rather than design. “It was a convenient outcome," he says, looking around the table. "We go for good people.”
The quartet are cagey about their precise methods but their sales pitch is clear – whether you have a contentious property development to sell to the public or are hoping to win Government support for a levelling-up project, they can help make your case with the people that matter (for the right fee).
Sir Lynton has been involved in the world of politics since the 1970s when he started working as a research assistant for Baden Teague, a senator for Liberal Party – Australia’s equivalent of the Conservatives.
After unsuccessfully running for office himself in the early 1980s, he gradually rose through the ranks of the Liberal Party’s machinery, becoming their campaign director in the 1990s.
He went on to found C|T Group with polling specialist Mark Textor and their work soon went international – including in the UK where election slogans like ‘‘It’s Not Racist to Impose Limits on Immigration’’ caused controversy in 2005.
Sir Lynton won’t be drawn on his personal beliefs but says he is selective about who he works with.
“We only work for clients who we believe in. We’ve been approached by all sorts of clients we have knocked back because you have got to have some framework on which you base your decision-making. Are we guns for hire? In one sense we are but we choose for whom we discharge the gun.”
His key message today is – predictably – a simple but memorable one.
“Every message must be personally relevant and for a potential client, the personal message is we can improve the chances of having a proposal they have put getting the thumbs up with whomever the decision-maker may be. We influence decision-makers. I say that in a constructive way.
"It is not about picking up the phone and speaking to somebody and getting the fix in, it is about running a campaign that takes account of what is personally relevant to the decision-maker as well.”
He may not quite be the soul of sweetness, but there is little doubting Lynton Crosby’s effectiveness as a political operator. As The Yorkshire Post leaves the hotel where he is holding court, the next journalist arrives for their appointment with the so-called Wizard of Oz.
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