By Tim Montgomerie
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In the list of reasons why the Conservatives didn't win the last election a top candidate was the election debates:
"The massive audiences for the TV debates threatened to wipe out the advantage given to David Cameron by the support of key newspapers and by his Rolls Royce ground operation. They effectively gave the Liberal Democrats the same status they enjoy in by-elections where, unlike in national campaigns they are more than able to match the big parties; pound-for-pound, leaflet-for-leaflet, footsoldier-for-footsoldier."
Yesterday we set out the Tory masterplan to win the next election. It is remarkably similar to the last plan. There's a huge emphasis on what is called the ground war – lots of targeting of key demographics and early, sustained investment in manpower and direct mail in fifty marginal constituencies. You do not want this investment blown away by allowing a game-changing event once the four week, pre-polling-day campaign begins.
A second set of televised election debates during the next campaign probably won't have the repeat impact of the 2010 debates but ConHQ will be wise to limit the possibility. Rather than staging the debates during the few weeks before polling day the debates could be held over three months – say in January, February and March. Given we are operating within a fixed-term parliament this advance scheduling will be easier to deliver. It is also perfectly consistent with, for example, the practice in the US where there is also some distance between the presidential debates and when Americans actually vote.
It is perfectly possible, of course, that the debates won't happen at all. Labour may object to debating two Coalition leaders. Given the general election will coincide with, for example, Holyrood elections there'll be a greater case that three-way debates will be unfair on other parties. For the reasons set out here I'd be delighted if they don't happen. What is essential, however, is we limit their ability to overwhelm our ground game.