Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publications, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
Our national broadcasters have done something I never thought possible. They’ve re-created the “closed shop” and told the political parties to comply with their general debate wishes or else. Not that they have defined the “else”. They’ve more or less presented the party leaders with a fait accompli. The only person who’s happy seems to be Ed Miliband. Draw your own conclusions.
It is said that Lynton Crosby doesn’t want the debates at all. I have no idea if that is true or not, but I can see no way the Prime Minister can duck the debates, having made such a big thing about how important they were in 2010.
I think David Cameron has a point when he says there needs to be more space between the debates, and that one of them should take place before the campaign gets underway. As to who should participate in which debates, no one is ever going to agree on that. Clegg bleats that as a party of government the Liberal Democrats should be included in all three. The Greens reckon they should get a look in too. Even the SNP appear to think they should be included. Well, if they are, why not include Plaid and the DUP too. Or go the whole hog and bring in the Shinners? And Uncle Tom Cobley too?
This really is very simple. Why not agree that any party who fights at least 90 per cent of the seats in the United Kingdom and has at least one MP should be entitled to field their leader in a debate? That debate should take place after nominations close. Either side of it, there should be two prime ministerial debates between the leaders of the two parties who got most seats at the previous election.
Oh, and each debate should last two hours. In the first prime ministerial debate, there should be no moderator. The two leaders should conduct it themselves by taking questions from the audience. We’d learn more about them in that format than with an interrogator.
I’ve heard it all now. Some anti-smoking nanny stater is seriously suggesting that smoking should be banned in Parliament Square, Trafalgar Square and some London parks. Why don’t these people just come and out say that their real agenda is to ban smoking altogether? At least that would be an honest position to take. Instead, we have a ratchet effect. First it was in pubs, restaurants and the workplace. Next it was in cars where children are present. Soon it will be in your house. I don’t smoke, and I hate the smell of cigarette smoke, but I defend people’s right to smoke so long as it is legal to do so. It’s the only logical position.
I’ve been offered five or six books giving a retrospective on the Scottish referendum. I have turned them all down on the basis that these kind of books have to be special to work. But this week I was sent a chapter from a diary of the campaign by the editor of the Scottish Telegraph, Alan Cochrane. It took me all of five minutes to recognise that I had something special on my hands, so I immediately signed it up and it will be published by Biteback in mid-November, coincidentally in the same week that Alex Salmond leaves office. Choosing a title was not quite so straightforward. We considered putting the word ‘Eck’ in the title, but then figured that it wouldn’t be picked up in the search engines. Anyway, it’s a gripping and very entertaining read, and I reckon we might just have a surprise bestseller on our hands. Oh, in the end we chose Alex Salmond – My Part in his Downfall – The Cochrane Diaries. OK, not very snappy, but it does what it says on the tin. You can preorder the book.
The New Statesman informs us that Sadiq Khan has been appointed by Miliband to head up a unit to stop the Green Party stealing Labour votes. I asked him on LBC who was heading up Labour’s anti-UKIP unit. There was a sort of gulping goldfish sound at the other end of the line. Labour really don’t seem to understand that UKIP is a massive threat to them, especially in northern marginal seats.
Grant Shapps has adopted exactly the right strategy in putting forward two female candidates for the Rochester & Strood Open Primary. Both are fairly local to the seat and both have a track record. I don’t know either of them, and I don’t envy them in what one of them will face over the next four weeks; but if they can hold off the UKIP surge they will become instant folk heroes in the Tory Party. Since his defection, Mark Reckless has hardly put a foot right, and clearly doesn’t enjoy the sort of local popular support that Douglas Carswell did in Clacton. However, UKIP are on the crest of a wave and must go into this by-election as favourites. What is interesting is the fact that Labour have clearly decided to sit this one out, even though they held the seat until 2010. Surely a party with pretensions to government should be throwing the kitchen sink at a seat like this. It’s the kind of seat they need to win if they are to form a majority government.
On Wednesday, I had the great pleasure of attending the inaugural Margaret Thatcher Centre lecture and reception at the Carlton Club. Donal Blaney and his colleagues have raised more than £2 million so far in their quest to open the Centre. It’s a fantastic project and all true Thatcherites ought to support it. Conor Burns made a fantastic speech, full of wit, insight and ideology. Conor told the gathered throng that the Centre had the full support of the Cabinet, then added for good measure, “Well, the sounder ones.” “Name them!” cried Sir Gerald Howarth. I suspect it wouldn’t have taken long.
The vote of thanks to Conor was proposed by Jeffrey Archer who told a great anecdote about Lady Thatcher and the House of Lords. Archer had told her there were ten peers who had never made a maiden speech in the House of Lords. “Well, who are they?” she wanted to know. Knowing full well the one name which would provoke a response he told her that one of them was Michael Heseltine. Pausing for dramatic effect, Lady Thatcher retorted; “Well, look on the bright side. At least we haven’t had to listen to it.”