THE name Lynton Crosby might not mean an awful lot to people.
He is the strategist brought in by David Cameron to help with fighting the next General Election. Nothing wrong with that – most if not all political parties employ people to help them sharpen up their message to the electorate.
What is very significant and which moves this story from a July Westminster village issue to something at the heart of public policy is the fact that Mr Crosby earns his money by lobbying governments on behalf of business.
One of his clients is a big tobacco company and in the past few days the Government has announced that it will not bring forward proposed legislation which would see standardised and plain packaging of cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Over the past few years I have received a huge amount of correspondence from constituents on this matter.
I have written on behalf of constituents to the Secretary of State for Health. I would certainly vote for plain packaging legislation if brought forward in the House of Commons.
Hartlepool has had a big problem with lung cancer and other diseases directly caused by large scale smoking.
There has been huge success in recent years in terms of getting people in the town to stop smoking – Hartlepool’s smoking cessation rates are some of the best in the country – but it would be so much better if people, especially young people, were encouraged not to take up smoking in the first place.
I’m not suggesting that the introduction of plain packaging would be a magic wand that would immediately stop people from taking up smoking.
There is also a need to deal with social and cultural matters that make the taking up of smoking attractive.
But a growing body of evidence suggests that plain packaging does make cigarettes less attractive to young people. It also improves the public health message that smoking kills and helps prevent the idea that choosing a certain brand of cigarettes is somehow safer than another.
Public health policy should always be based on evidence and, as I said, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that plain packaging cuts the number of people beginning to start smoking.
That is why it appears very suspicious, to say the least, that the Government has dropped its proposal for plain packaging without giving an adequate explanation as to why.
The Prime Minister has had an excruciating time in the last few days regarding the matter.
He has tried a clever form of words to say that Lynton Crosby has not directly “lobbied” him over the matter, but he refuses to say whether the issue has been discussed between the two men.
The fact that at least one big tobacco company pays Mr Crosby to put forward their views to the Government and that he has the ear of the Prime Minister on a fairly direct basis stinks as much as a packet of Woodbines.
If he hasn’t mentioned the matter, why on earth are companies paying him and his company large sums of money to lobby the Government?
There is a direct conflict of interest here. Mr Crosby should either provide advice to David Cameron and give up the lucrative lobbying contracts or keep his full-time job and end his association at the heart of Government.
He shouldn’t be able to do both. Some might say that this is a storm in a Westminster bubble, something that shows how insulated from real life the Parliamentary village is.
I don’t share that view. This is about undue influence at the heart of government.
But the upshot of this is that plain packaging is not being introduced and that thousands of kids might take up smoking that otherwise might not have done.