You know, I used to quite enjoy watching question time in British Parliament. They have a thing here quite alien to Australian question time, i.e. questions get answered. The three-line whip doesn’t apply so questions from the backbench are often forensic in nature, people stay on topic, and there is even courtesy between government and opposition.

Then Lynton Crosby arrived and, of course, it’s all gone to shit. The Lizard of Oz, having helped Boris gain the mayoralty, was invited to stay on and help sort out the Tories, who were floundering in ’12, with a flat-lining economy, a huge internal squabble about Europe and a rising challenge from the UK Independence Party, the joke-party to the Right of them.

Chancellor Gideon “George” Osborne had brought in Crosby to push Boris over the line, amidst a lacklustre campaign. Allegedly he worked miracles. I’m not so sure, but that was the myth. On the basis of that, he was subsequently drafted into Number 10, where he promptly replaced Osborne, his “in”, as de facto strategic director. The stated intention was to “scrape the barnacles off the boat” and start moving through the water faster.

That has certainly been achieved, with a low politics that plays to the lower depths of the current British psyche. We’re a long way away from “hug a hoodie” and the Big Society; we’re even beyond a simple return to prosperity, freeing up the housing market, etc. Now we’ve accepted that nothing’s going to change for quite a while, and that in fact the stagnation may be permanent, so there is nothing else to do but turn on each other.

That was put into practice in earnest a couple of months ago, after UKIP pushed the Tories out of second place in the South Shields byelection, and the prospect of four-party politics loomed. By that point Labour were running six points ahead, a winning margin. The response was two-fold. First, to ramp up a relentless campaign against the unemployed, and to revel in the cruelty of a further round of cuts. De facto charity services — such as food banks — were factored into the benefits system, with a heavy emphasis on the notion that unemployment was a personal fault, welfare dependency, etc.

Second was the old John Howard trick — the government behaved as if they were the opposition, and demanded the opposition justify themselves. They shifted off attacks on Gordon Brown’s record — which were getting very old — and instead focused on Labour’s connection with the unions. Today they moved on to the NHS, with a damning report on a selection of lethal hospitals. Only some of it occurred under Labour, but they’re making Labour own it all, on the grounds the NHS is “theirs”.

This has been hugely successful, pushing UKIP back down to 6% from 12% and giving them level pegging with Labour. All of this was proxy for the fight Crosby might have loved to try — on immigration — but couldn’t get away with, because the current government presides over open slather. Crosby’s debarnacling strategy has also seen the Con-Dems ditch most of their progressive social policy, symbolised by the abandonment of plain cigarette packaging. But alas, that’s where the wheels have come off, for it has not passed notice that one of Crosby’s other clients is the tobacco industry, who will be delighted the global wave of plain packaging has been headed off at the pass.

Crosby has rapidly become the story, especially after tonight when the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight, stated blithely that Crosby specifically excluded himself from health policy discussions in his No. 10 job. It sounded like a lie on the hoof and it will come back to haunt them, by bringing the whole question of lobbying and influence back in. Whatever Crosby grabs back from UKIP, he may lose in the middle ground.

This is the Tories as nasty party, the one British voters rejected three times. They have got nastier too, more frightened, desperate and self-interested. “Govt targets teenage single mums” said the afternoon headlines. Thanks a bunch, Lynton, for bringing down the tone. If what screws it up for you, and them, are your own interests, it will be richly deserved. And I might get question time back.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey