Lynton Crosby has developed a surprisingly close relationship with Boris Johnson. The infamous Australian spin doctor is purportedly running Johnson’s campaign for prime minister: services for which he would normally charge a small fortune. But, instead, “the lizard of Oz”, as he’s known, appears to be paying Johnson for the honour.
Crosby's lobbying firm CTF Partners has donated over £20,000 to Johnson's leadership bid. But why does Crosby appear to be financially backing his client, rather than taking money from him?
One clue might come from the Washington arm of the spin-doctor’s global empire: CTF Global says on its website that it offers “unrivalled expertise... thanks to the Group’s longstanding relationships in the UK” to companies looking for advice on “how best to position themselves as the UK prepares to exit from the European Union”.
The firm refuses to disclose who is taking advantage of these connections either in the US or UK. But CTF, named for Crosby and his business partners Mark Textor and Mark Fullbrook, is a registered lobbyist for British American Tobacco on “issues impacting domestic tobacco industry”, and has run a “covert campaign” globally for the coal industry, and against renewable energy.
Crosby made his reputation helping Australia’s right-wing Liberal party win a string of elections, before running both of Boris Johnson’s successful campaigns for London Mayor, as well as the Tory party campaigns in 2005 and 2017 and acting as an advisor to David Cameron. His services for the four month of the 2008 mayoral campaign are said to have cost £140,000.
In October, CTF Partners lent the former foreign secretary £20,000 for office and staffing costs, and then in January, the firm gave him £3,000 for the same.
In April this year, the Times reported that Boris Johnson had told fellow Tory MPs that Crosby was running his campaign for Conservative leader, and claimed that he talks to Crosby on the phone “most days”. Crosby’s company was also behind a poll published in the Daily Telegraph which claimed that Johnson was best placed to win back Brexit party voters to the Tories. openDemocracy understands that Johnson’s account, along with the Leave campaign, also co-ordinated by CTF, is one of the biggest within the company - this is not small scale.
When the Sunday Times reported earlier this year that Crosby was working with senior Brexiteers, CTF commented that its “senior staff are often consulted because of their campaign expertise... That’s not unusual.”
Johnson, who has now made the final two in the Tory leadership election, has had a notably more successful campaign than when he attempted to run for the role in 2016. After David Cameron resigned, the former London Mayor ended up using what was meant to be his campaign launch to announce that he would, in fact, not be running.
This time, the former journalist has managed to raise more than £100,000 for his leadership bid, including from the prominent climate change denier Terence Mordaunt, as openDemocracy previously revealed.
In March this year, the Guardian revealed that CT Group - Crosby and Textor’s company - was also behind a covert global campaign funded by the mining giant Glencore to prop up the coal industry, pushing anti-renewables messages and countering environmental activists. The campaign, dubbed “project Caesar” “aimed to engage key politicians, both to gauge their views on coal and attempt to convince them of its continuing value”, according to the paper. Glencore say that the campaign has since been shut down, and told the Guardian “The project’s objective was to convey simple facts about coal and in particular to counter misinformation from environmental activists.”
Commenting on claims they were behind the pro-coal lobby, CT Group said to the Guardian “All information about our clients is treated with the strictest confidence.”
Labour shadow minister Jon Trickett criticised Johnson’s close relationship to lobbyists selling influence in British politics, saying to openDemocracy:
“Johnson’s man of the people routine is nothing more than a cheap ruse to distract from his cosy relationship with vested interests.
The Tory leadership contest, he said “is starting to look like a shop window for the rich and powerful”.
Meanwhile, Green MP Caroline Lucas highlighted the significance of a US lobbying operation being so closely connected to the presumptive next prime minister, saying:
“Boris Johnson expects the UK to be first in line for any trade deal with the US. Now we know who will really be first in line: US companies buying the services of Lynton Crosby’s lobbying empire will be fast-tracked to Number 10.
“This has more than the whiff of back room deals, neatly controlled by Lynton Crosby. Boris Johnson needs to come clean about who is funding his campaign for the Tory leadership, and what he’s offering in return.”
CT Group also sponsored the International Lounge at Tory party conference in 2017, which was a hangout for diplomats and overseas delegates.
Crosby has a history of lobbying for tobacco in the UK, including against the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes just days before it was announced he was to become an adviser to prime minister David Cameron. At the time, he denied using his position inappropriately, saying “At no time have I had any conversation or discussion with or lobbied the prime minister, or indeed the health secretary or the health minister, on plain packaging or tobacco issues. Any claim that I have sought to improperly use my position as part-time campaign adviser to the Conservative party is simply false."
In April this year CTF Global registered a new US lobbying client, Coal Trading & Utilities Ltd, a company registered in the UK by Ildar Uzbekov, the son-in-law of the billionaire Russian coal king Alexander Shchukin. CTF Global says it is lobbying for the firm on “issues impacting energy and commodities trading”.
Nick Dearden, director of the campaign group Global Justice Now, argued that “Boris Johnson’s vision of hard Brexit is the creation of turbo-charged deregulation and privatisation in the British economy”.
“Here we begin to see that nightmare being turned into a reality” Dearden said to openDemocracy. “Behind Johnson stand a bunch of ultra-neoliberals like Lynton Crosby prepared to sell access to our most senior politicians so American multinationals can turn Britain into their private playground”.
“That Johnson is backed and supported by a major lobbyist for the global tobacco and fossil fuel industries should terrify all of us. To hell with decent consumer or animal welfare standards, well-run and properly funded public services, or the creation of a properly paid and protected workforce. Johnson’s elite contacts are already trying to sell our society off to American corporations, and everything we hold dear is at stake.”
Speaking about the Conservative leadership at an event in Westminster earlier this month, Crosby said: “You need someone who can articulate the case. You need someone who has character. The most successful politicians today are those who have some element of character.”
He argued that the Conservative party needs a leader who “has to have the ability to connect with the voters and offer a sense of hope” and added: “Not some phoney, hollow, idealistic sense of ‘this is all going to be great’ but nevertheless give people a sense of belief.”
CT Group have not responded to our request for comment.