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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 November, 2004, 10:13 GMT
Howard's wizard of Oz
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter

Political strategists are often portrayed as shadowy svengalis, wielding huge power and influence over their elected masters.

Lynton Crosby
Lynton Crosby: an election winner (Pic - ABC)

But even by these standards, Lynton Crosby, the man the Conservatives have hired to help them win the next general election, comes with a reputation.

The 48-year-old has been described as a "master of the dark political arts" and "the Australian Karl Rove," a reference to George Bush's legendary campaign adviser.

In 2002, Australian newspaper The Age described Mr Crosby as "one of the most powerful and influential figures in the nation".

His reputation is built on masterminding four successive general election victories for Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

'Slick political machine'

Mr Howard, of the Liberal Party, the nearest Australian equivalent of the UK's Conservative party, returned from the political wilderness in 1996 to defeat Labour's Paul Keating.

He went on to win a further three elections, with Mr Crosby involved in key campaigning roles.

Michael Howard
Mr Howard hopes to emulate his Australian namesake
Mr Crosby quit the Liberal Party of Australia last year and had been expected to take up lucrative work in the private sector.

But he has been lured to the Conservative cause by the prospect of engineering a similar comeback for Michael Howard, who not so long ago was languishing on the back benches.

"I think there are many similarities with John Howard," Mr Crosby told The Times newspaper last year.

"We had Keating running a very slick political machine. But the glitz and the glamour can only last so long. Ultimately, you have to deliver."

Whatever tactics he chooses to deploy in the UK, Mr Crosby, who will work alongside Tory co-chairman Liam Fox, is certain to want a tough, highly-focused election campaign.

He is known for his aggressive style and his willingness to "go negative".

He reportedly made quite an impression when he made a presentation at a shadow cabinet bonding weekend last year.

According to one report, then shadow chancellor Michael Howard's "eyes lit up" as Mr Crosby screened a television ad showing Paul Keating making a remark he later had to withdraw.

This has led to speculation the Tories will attempt to skewer Tony Blair on "trust" at the next election.

Localised campaigning

What Mr Crosby does best, according to one journalist who has watched him at close quarters, is "below the radar" campaigning.

That is, the ruthless targeting of marginal constituencies with highly localised campaigning, latching on to local issues and personalities.

The key to winning election campaigns is building a good team...and having a leader who knows what he's on about
Lynton Crosby
This even stretches to calling up voters individually - or, better still, having the party leader or other senior figures man the phones.

"This has been a highly effective tactic," says one Australian journalist, who asked not to be named.

"The Liberal Party have whipped Labour's butt in marginal seats. They have wiped them out."

Swing voters

The Conservatives have already set up a call centre in the West Midlands - close to its target seats and away from the Westminster village - with a similar purpose in mind.

The party has imported Voter Vault computer software from the US, where it was used by the Republicans to store information on voters.

It claims to identify people likely to vote Tory from their spending habits and other information. The party hopes to use it to target about 400,000 swing voters in key marginals.

Critics say the Tories has been forced to go down this route because they are short of activists willing to pound the streets, but Labour has set up a similar call centre in North Shields.

The Australian journalist said: "The biggest effect Lynton will have is his professionalism.

"The Australian Liberal Party have a very professional campaign structure.

"If Lynton achieves nothing else, he will get the Conservative party machine working more effectively.

"That means effective media monitoring, responding quickly, not letting any of the issues get away from them."

'Playing hardball'

He will also tell Michael Howard to "stand up for what you believe in, let people know what you stand for, who you are".

"John Howard is a conviction politician - and I think Lynton will want to steer Michael Howard in that direction", added the journalist.

In a rare interview with The Age two years ago, Mr Crosby said: "The key to winning election campaigns is building a good team, having clear central lines of authority while implementing your campaign in as decentralised away as possible, and having a leader who knows what he's on about."

He may have been compared to Karl Rove, but Mr Crosby's fondness for "playing hardball" with journalists - and his habit of firing off letters of complaint to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation - will remind many in Westminster of someone a little closer to home.

They've had a long search, but could the Tories have finally found their very own Alastair Campbell?

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