Boris Johnson’s threat to break international law is the little “bit of crazy” required to knock Brussels off balance during trade negotiations and shows how the UK is no longer a soft touch, the prime minister’s former political adviser has said.
Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist dubbed the “wizard of Oz” by clients, said Mr Johnson had what it takes to win a fifth successive election for the Tory party in 2024 despite not handling Covid-19 as well as hoped.
In contrast, Labour leader Keir Starmer would struggle to dethrone the prime minister because he is risk averse, viewed as part of the political establishment and faces intense scrutiny over his time as director of public prosecutions, he added.
“In the past, the EU has thought Britain’s an easy touch and in the end they’ll roll over. And, you know, in negotiations, like this you need a little bit of crazy to keep your opponents guessing,” Sir Lynton told the Financial Times.
He said levels of indignation about Mr Johnson’s threat to override parts of the EU withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland were rising among the same group of ‘Remainers’ who opposed Britain’s EU exit.
The European Commission has threatened to take legal action over Mr Johnson’s internal market bill, which seeks to limit the influence of Brussels over subsidies and customs arrangements in Northern Ireland, if EU-UK trade talks end with no-deal at the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31. The next round of formal negotiations are due to take place on September 28.
Sir Lynton said critics of Mr Johnson’s legislative move had conveniently forgotten how David Cameron broke international law while prime minister — a reference to his refusal to give prisoners the right to vote — while Italy had done the same with their anti-immigration laws.
The co-founder of CT Group, a political and corporate research consultancy, Sir Lynton masterminded two London mayoral election victories for Mr Johnson and also advised Mr Cameron and Theresa May. He no longer works for Mr Johnson and some Conservatives still blame him for Mrs May’s poor showing in the 2017 general election, which resulted in a hung parliament.
Although he has been living in Australia since March, Sir Lynton’s connections to Downing Street have not been completely broken. His protégé Isaac Levido, who advised Mr Johnson on his thumping 2019 election triumph and is described by Sir Lynton as a friend, was drafted back into the Number 10 operation in March to help with the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sir Lynton said Mr Johnson and his team would take a near-term hit from their handling of coronavirus but this was unlikely to endure until the next election.
“Dealing with the coronavirus is like going on a holiday with mom and dad in the car. We’re nowhere near the destination yet,” he said. “People are quite sanguine and they’re willing they’re leaders to succeed.”
He said Mr Johnson had an ability to connect with the public, tell a story and bring people with him. The public view him as “authentic” in an era of ‘white bread’ politicians (lacking fibre), he said. But a recent YouGov survey found 54 per cent of people thought Mr Johnson was doing badly.
When asked about claims that the prime minister had been dishonest about the EU, Sir Lynton replied: “One person’s lie is another person’s honesty.”
On Labour, he said Sir Keir, who replaced the hard left leader Jeremy Corbyn in April, was a smart and articulate adversary but “incredibly risk averse”. He predicted he would struggle to connect with Labour supporters outside London.
“The risk for Starmer is that he’ll be positioned or be seen by a lot of people outside of London as that sort of, you know, north London metropolitan elite, who doesn’t understand people.”
Sir Lynton said there was a view among a lot of voters that the elites — including some of the columnists in the Financial Times — not only think people are wrong but that they are not even entitled to hold views. “That’s the sentiment of a lot of people outside London who voted for Brexit, including in those red wall constituencies [Labour heartlands].”
A similar anti-establishment feeling and perceptions of a loss of control could help Donald Trump win re-election in November, says Sir Lynton.
“People see the international money markets decide the value of their currency. They see global technology companies move their profits around the world to minimise tax. They see all these things over which they have no control. And so when they see someone they feel can give them hope that they can reassert control over their lives and over their country . . . a lot of people will opt for it.”