LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron has hired an Australian political strategist to mastermind his party's re-election campaign and draw a line under months of policy reversals that have seen his Conservatives slump in popularity.
The party said on Sunday Cameron had appointed Lynton Crosby as an adviser for national polls due in 2015, days after the Conservatives crashed to a bruising defeat in a parliamentary by-election in a bellwether middle England seat.
Crosby was the mastermind of two winning campaigns for London Mayor Boris Johnson, securing the flamboyant former journalist - seen as a potential rival to Cameron - a second term in May against a national anti-Conservative trend.
"(Crosby) will bring a sense of direction, a sense of strategy," said prominent Conservative commentator Iain Dale. "This year has been a complete shambles for the Conservative party," he told BBC TV.
Cameron, who travels to a summit in Brussels this week in search of a real-terms cut in the European Union budget, has struggled to impose direction on his administration since an unpopular budget in March that left his ministers looking out of touch with voters.
He has stumbled over a series of policy u-turns and is under pressure from Conservative rebels who want Britain to dilute its relationship with the European Union.
His party, ruling in coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats, trails opposition Labour in opinion polls and faces an uphill battle to reconnect with Britons whose incomes have been squeezed in a deficit-busting austerity programme.
Crosby has a reputation for running campaigns focusing hard on populist issues such as immigration and crime, and steered former Australian prime minister John Howard to four successive election victories between 1996 and 2004.
He had less luck in Britain in 2005 with his national election campaign for Michael Howard, Cameron's predecessor as Conservative leader, which ended in defeat to Tony Blair's Labour.
Opponents speculated that Crosby's appointment signalled a shift to the right away from the centre-ground that Cameron has cultivated to "detoxify" the Conservatives from an uncaring image gained under former leader Margaret Thatcher.
But a Conservative party source denied policy would change under Crosby's influence.
"He's a valuable addition to the team but the prime minister knows his own mind. It's not an end to any of David Cameron's ambitions for the Conservative party," the source said.
(Reporting by Tim Castle)