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Wed, 24 July 2024

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By Tobias Ellwood
By Ben Guerin
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The Wizard Of Oz - can Isaac Levido work a miracle for the Tories?

6 min read

It has become a staple of the weekend wrap-up read in politics: a reported quote from Isaac Levido telling a private meeting of Tories that all is not yet lost.

These nuggets are nearly always the same: there is a narrow path to victory; voters haven’t warmed to Keir Starmer; discipline and delivery are more important than ever. Since none is remarkable, it is only the authority of the man making them that renders them newsworthy.
But who is the “Tories’ election guru” and can he really pull off what would surely be one of the biggest upsets of modern British political history?

In one of just a handful of freely available images of Levido, he is walking along Downing Street with the fur-lined hood of his parka pulled up. He looks irritated.

The 40-year-old Australian enjoys a celebrity best cultivated away from the cameras. He is, in any case, temperamentally reserved. He speaks in a quiet, measured voice and has a dry wit.
Isaac Barry Ernest Levido was raised in Port Macquarie, a small town in New South Wales where his father, Justin, remains a well-known lawyer and was at one time a Liberal councillor. There are plenty of rugby-playing relatives in the local Cessnock Goannas league team.
On graduating as an accountant, the young Isaac worked for a couple of years at an insolvency practice in Australia during the global financial crisis – useful experience of how institutions can fail.

His interest in politics led to an early career change, however. After a master’s at Georgetown University in the United States, he stayed in the country to work for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That in turn led to an opening as a junior diplomat at the Australian embassy. He served under Kim Beazley, an ambassador to Washington, as a congressional liaison officer during the Barack Obama White House years. 

He was evidently drawn to rawer politics and badgered Lynton Crosby into giving him a job at the legendary consultancy that Crosby ran with Mark Textor (and later Mark Fullbrook), CTF.
Crosby had become a fixture of the British political scene since Michael Howard hired him to run the 2005 election. He lost that one but won the next two with David Cameron as well as helping Boris Johnson win and retain the London mayoralty in 2008 and 2012.

After joining, Levido worked for CTF in Washington for a spell, helping set up its office in 2016. Former colleagues say this period was personally and professionally disappointing. 

From January 2018 to mid-2019, he returned to Australia to serve as the Liberal Party’s deputy campaign director and was part of the team that won unexpected re-election for Scott Morrison’s government.

His heart, however, was in London. He recently married Mimi Randolph, another CTF employee. Friends say she is as outgoing as he is low-key. They live in Kensal Rise, London.
Working with Crosby during the last decade put Levido at the heart of Conservative politics and gave him plenty of facetime with all the principals as well as other key fixers. “Knowing the Conservative Party – really knowing it – that’s Isaac’s ‘special sauce’,’’ says a former colleague.

Johnson had originally intended Levido to be his director of strategy in No 10 when he won the Conservative leadership election that summer – a plan derailed by the arrival of Dominic Cummings.

Cummings took the Australian for a drink and explained that he had effectively taken his job; but instead of falling out, the pair appear to have bonded. Levido retreated to the shadows without making a fuss and Cummings seized his moment, calling the former back to the colours when the election was announced.

Levido set the tone of the campaign by scheduling the first meeting at 5.40am. “The message was: ‘We want this more than them; we will work harder than them; while they are listening to Chris Mason on the BBC we will have already spent 20 minutes shouting at him.’”

The machismo was leavened with humour, however. His colleagues also appreciated his coolness – and loyalty – under fire. One recalls how one morning when Johnson was “going bananas” at a miscreant aide, Levido defended them stoutly in front of the then prime minister. That made his own more measured and private rebuke of the aide all the more effective. “The only time I ever really saw him angry was when there was a leak. He hates leaks,” says a veteran campaigner.

After the victory, Levido sent handwritten letters and gifts to each member of the HQ team. One was a pair of cufflinks engraved with the number of additional seats the party had won.
Just a month after polling day, in January 2020, he set up his own shop, Fleetwood Strategy Limited, with two others, Peter Dominiczak, former political editor of The Telegraph, and Michael Brooks. (It was Brooks who suggested the “Get Brexit Done” slogan following his work with focus groups.)

Fleetwood declares four clients on its entry at the Office of the Registrar of Consultant Lobbyists: Airbnb; Balfour Beatty; Palantir; and the cryptocurrency platform Luno. It is not registered with the more exacting Public Relations and Communications Association.
Cummings and Johnson turned again to Levido when the Covid crisis overwhelmed them. He helped refine and simplify public health messaging. His impact was transformational and delivered with minimum ego, says a fan.

Levido found himself out in the cold, however, with the arrival of Liz Truss. Thankfully for him, his period of exclusion lasted only as long as her premiership, and Rishi Sunak has since handed him the huge challenge of winning the next election for the Conservatives.
In 2020, Levido gave a flavour of his approach in a lengthy interview with a Canadian commentator. Voters are “very perceptive” and will punish any attempt to exploit so-called culture war issues if they think they are irrelevant to their day-to-day concerns, he said. (He was speaking before the Liberals’ defeat in Australia’s 2022 election, a campaign in which he was also involved.)

He was reportedly the guiding force behind the recent net-zero u-turn.

He singled out homeownership as being an example of an issue voters care about both in terms of economic self-interest and an expression of their values. Centre-right parties, he said, should always own the “pocketbook” issues and demonstrate their values through them.Elections are always about the future, not litigating the past.

At first sight crushingly banal, that last point is crucial in understanding the strategy of Sunak’s last year. Everything has been preparatory to a campaign that will be based on the question of which party can be most trusted to serve voters’ interests – primarily economic – in the next five years. He was reportedly the guiding force behind the recent net-zero u-turn.
Will it work? Levido and Sunak both know it won’t unless there is a measure of belief among the troops. The repeated briefings are designed to ensure MPs and activists don’t just give up. 

Some around the Prime Minister are said to vent frustration that the strategist is not working more hours for CCHQ. Closing a double polling deficit with Labour is not a part-time job.
Levido might well counter that a self-indulgent procession of Tory MPs quitting to force distracting by-elections and bouts of in-fighting is hardly helping. 
For now, any complaints remain private. The path may be ever more narrow and beset by gathering danger, but Levido and Sunak tread it still. 

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