- CTF Comms
There was a huge cut-out of Boris Johnson in Lynton Crosby's office.
"Thank you for running the most amazing campaign," the Mayor had scribbled on it.
"This is written at 4.15pm on election day so may revise later though hope not." No revision was needed. Despite a nailbiting finish, the Australian political strategist known as the Wizard of Oz masterminded a win for Boris in London.
Even as Conservative councillors were blown away across the country in the local elections cyclone, Mr Crosby persuaded the voters that the scarecrow of City Hall could use his brains to manage the capital. "This has been like waiting for a baby to be born," he says. "It's been a very intense period."
Having worked on dozens of election campaigns all over the world, he believes that Mr Johnson is unique in politics. "He's a multigrain politician in an era of white-bread politicians. He has character. Ken Livingstone had that once, but in politics people work you out over time and if you are not genuine they go off you. With Boris there is a genuineness - he doesn't have a technique.
"There is a bit of risk because you are never quite sure what he is going to say, but it is him. Ken has a political strategy whereas Boris just does it."
He says that Mr Johnson outperformed his party by rising above party politics. "Voters aren't stupid - they have worked out that Boris is a Conservative. But people who don't vote Conservative will also vote for him despite that. Most voters haven't seen this as a referendum on the Government but a vote on who they want as Mayor."
Lynton and Boris don't look like natural soulmates. Mr Crosby, who grew up on a farm in southern Australia, describes himself as a "capital 'P' Philistine", preferring the Outback to the opera house. Mr Johnson went to Eton and Oxford. But Mr Crosby, who also worked on Mr Johnson's first London campaign, says the Mayor is not an arrogant posh boy. "Boris is his own person, he is not a creature of class, he won a scholarship and he works bloody hard. A lot of people suggest that he is idle but to me he is the opposite. He is always on the go, always having ideas, he e-mails at 5.30am. His style maligns his work ethic - because he is often thinking of 15 things at once he doesn't always appear focused."
He didn't send his candidate for a haircut or ask him to pose for the photographers with his wife and children. "He is who he is, I couldn't change him. I think he brushed his hair."
The bust-up with Mr Livingstone in the lift over their tax affairs was, Mr Crosby suggests, not a low point but a defining moment of the mayoral campaign. "It showed that he went beyond 'jolly Boris' - he was seriously angry. I have no doubt that it helped cement some people. Everyone wants to hold hands and sing kumbaya, but in politics you need a few moments of tension. You need points of difference."
He believes that the bad economic news in the final week of the campaign aided Boris. "Ironically, I think the double-dip recession helped our campaign because it made people realise that these are tough times and so we can't afford to be risky with money. Boris was seen as better able to manage money."
Mr Crosby rejects the suggestion from some rightwingers that Mr Johnson triumphed by promoting traditional Tory values. "Boris won because he was Boris and had done a good job as mayor and had, many would say, exceeded expectations . . . My business partner in Australia, who is a pollster, once said to me that he had never seen a politician against whom there was less malice. Even those who don't vote for him have a sense of warmth towards him; that's not a bad quality."
On polling day, he went with Mr Johnson to Fulham Broadway. "The thing that struck me was that six black minority ethnic people in a row came up and said they had voted for Boris. There was a single mum with her son in the barber shop and he jumped out of the chair and ran up to Boris."On race, he says: "It's chicken and egg. Is it that the Conservatives have trouble with some groups because they are black minority ethnic, or is it because those groups happen to be recent immigrants and therefore are often poorer, don't own their own home and may be on welfare, that they're not voting Conservative? You don't appeal to people just by saying, 'We've got a particular type of person in our party therefore you should vote for us'. Boris treats everybody the same."
While No 10 is worrying that Mr Cameron has lost the female vote, Boris had a consistent lead amongst women. "I don't think it's charm," Mr Crosby says. "They believe he's more in tune. Ken, as he's got older, has become a bit of a caricature of the cranky old machine politician. Boris doesn't talk about maternity or paternity leave, but most women don't talk about 'women's policies' either." Politicians' private lives matter less and less, in his view. "What matters to most voters is - do you take the job seriously? Do you have a set of values that guide you - I don't mean moral values but enduring values? People don't care where you've come from as long as you behave the right way towards them and if you've got a job to do, you do it to the best of your ability and understand the people you're seeking to represent."
What advice would Mr Crosby give to the Prime Minister after last week's disappointing results? "I charge for my advice," he jokes.
He is not about to take a job in No 10, although he was sounded out by Mr Cameron in Opposition. But the man who secured four election victories for John Howard as Australian Prime Minister says there are wider reasons for the Tory woes outside London. "The Government's got a very difficult challenge because they inherited a massive debt. The fact that there's a coalition obviously constrains the capacity of the Conservative Party to be as flexible as it might want to be."
The omnishambles of pasties, fuel, donors and granny tax will not do lasting damage, says the strategist. "I don't think people think that things have spiralled out of control. These are tough times. The most important thing in politics is message; you need a clear and consistent message and stick to that."
There have, though, been too many distractions. The Leveson inquiry revelations are, he says, "completely irrelevant to most people, they just do not give a toss . . . If you're out in the suburbs somewhere and you're worrying about petrol prices and paying your mortgage next week you just think what are these people going on about?"
Some Tory backbenchers are muttering that the modernising project has failed and that their leader may not be a winner. "I don't think they are right to go on the radio and say anything,"
Mr Crosby says. "I hate all this right-wing, left-wing stuff. The voters just want to know that you're focusing on what's best for them." He can't offer any magic solution to the Tory problems in the North and does not think that Mr Cameron should start ramping up the rhetoric on dog-whistle issues such as immigration, crime and tax. "People are not ideological, they just want a Government that delivers a better life for them," he says. "Overwhelmingly Mr Cameron's focusing on what he needs to focus on, which is the economy."
There is one quality, Mr Crosby says, that the London Mayor and the Prime Minister share: "They're both at ease with themselves."
So has Boris got what it takes to make it to No 10? "That's for others to judge," he replies. "The two things I've seen in him are a real hunger to be Mayor again and a clarity as to what he wants to do. If you're always underestimated, that's good; you'll surprise people. If you surprise them at the right time, that can be very powerful."