Tobacco lobbyist Lynton Crosby should be "got rid of" because he poses a threat to public health in Britain, a Liberal Democrat peer has said amid a Labour offensive on plain packaging in the Lords.
Parliament's upper House was the focus of the ongoing controversy about Crosby's links with the plain packaging U-turn this lunchtime, as health minister Earl Howe was forced on to the defensive.
Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury suggested: "For Mr Crosby to have any dealings whatsoever with government departments, and to exercise a malign influence in the background, is harmful to public health in the United Kingdom and he should be got rid of and sent back to Australia."
Earl Howe responded, to laughter from peers: "The latter matter is not one on which I will have any influence, and nor do I wish to.
"I don't think I can do more than I've already said. Mr Crosby has had no dealings with ministers or indeed the Department of Health on the issue of tobacco."
His confident statement suggested he was certain Crosby Textor Fullbrook, Crosby's UK lobbying company, was not among those which he had earlier had met with DoH officials.
Lord Elystan-Morgan, a crossbencher, had asked whether Crosby had "sought any contact with government or any agency of government in relation to this matter".
Earl Howe replied: "I am aware that officials in my department, although not ministers, had face to face meetings with certain tobacco companies in the context of the consultation on plain packaging that was done to clarify certain aspects of their written submissions.
"That is as far as it went. I'm not aware of which companies those were."
The exchanges were triggered by a question from Labour peer Baroness Thornton, who had suggested the UK could be breaking its commitments under the World Health Organisation's framework convention on tobacco control.
Article 5.3, she pointed out, calls for rules for the disclosure of all those acting on behalf of the industry, including lobbyists.
"Article 5.3 has been complied with in every particular in the last year," Earl Howe insisted.
Fellow Labour peer Lord Foulkes said he was puzzled about the difference between 'strategy' - which Crosby is engaged by the Conservative party on ahead of the next general election - and 'policy'.
"I'm sure we could get into an interesting conceptual discussion," Earl Howe replied.
The Crosby furore has died down since Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood published a letter stating that the civil service's processes had not been broken.
He also provided a 'principles of engagement' document which laid out the terms governing Crosby's involvement with the Tories.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett has challenged this version of events, however.
He cited a Conservative party source quoted by Channel 4 News stating that only a verbal agreement was made when Crosby was hired.
"It therefore appears that this was not properly drawn up by civil servants in order to avoid conflicts of interest in government, but hastily cobbled together after Mr Crosby had become a political embarrassment to the Conservative party," Trickett wrote in a reply to Heywood's letter.