By Tim Montgomerie
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Debates image

For my
 of the last Tory general
election campaign I was fortunate to interview all of its key architects
including George Osborne, Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson. My first question to
all of them was to ask 'what was the election campaign's key theme?'. They all
gave different answers. If they were unclear as to the reason why the Tories
should win power you couldn't really complain about the voters not getting it.

In his
interview with today's Times, Grant Shapps confirms that
that central weakness of the last Tory general election campaign will be addressed: Someone will be in charge and
that person will be Lynton Crosby
. There will be message discipline. There
will be no repeat of the Big Society fiasco – where the main theme of the
manifesto wasn't even poll tested. And there may be no debates. The Tory
Chairman says he is "open minded" about debates happening next time.
Moreover he admits to having had "very mixed feelings" about last
time's debates. Sir Humphrey would have been proud of those three words.
"Very mixed feelings" is, I suggest, diplomatic code for outright
opposition. An impeccable source tells me that Lynton Crosby was also opposed
to the 2010 debates and from the outset. Like ConHome, he predicted that they would
be a gift to Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems. The experience of election debates in
three or four party systems is that debates are nearly always a boost to the
smaller parties who are normally starved of attention.

There is,
of course, a question as to whether the Tories need the Lib Dems to be boosted
at the next election. Mark Gettleston has suggested that if the collapse in the
Lib Dem vote is maintained then it will be the Tories who will come off worst.
Relying on the debates to help the Lib Dems might be a dangerous gamble,
however. If Nick Clegg is still leading his party by the time of the next
election he is not the fresh face full of big promises that he was in 2010. He
is the leader who broke his tuition fees promise in spectacular style. Will
voters look at him and believe any word that he says on the next debate stage?
You can be sure that Labour leader Ed Miliband will be looking for killer lines
to remind voters of the Liberal Democrats' duplicity.

And what
about Labour leader Ed Miliband? Will the debates reinforce the sense that he
isn't prime ministerial or will he be able to use the debates to confound low
expectations and pass a minimum threshold of acceptability? If the debates are
again three party affairs he will be able to present himself and Labour as the
single option of change.

I have
already suggested that the debates be held in,
say, January, February and March of 2015 so that they do not dominate the
election campaign in the way they did last time. I don't believe they'll be
difficult to scupper if any political party is determined to do so. There'll be
plenty of excuses. Why, if UKIP top the European elections poll in 2014,
shouldn't Nigel Farage be included? Given the SNP are now the majority party of
Scottish government is it really fair to exclude them? If UKIP are allowed to
take part shouldn't the Greens also be included given they have an MP and are a
bigger force in local government? Wouldn't it be right to have at least one
head-to-head debate between the leaders of the two big parties – given that
only one of them will become PM? Is it fair in an era of Coalition government
for there to be two Coalition parties on stage, ganging up on Labour? If any
political party is determined enough they'll be able to find enough spanners to
throw in and disrupt the works.

PS For those
who don't like the partisan
(what-is-in-the-best-interests-of-the-Conservative-Party?) nature of this blog
I also have an 'in principle' objection to the debates which I set out here.

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