This site has always been of the view that it is essential that the leadership election be allowed to run its full course, with a proper contest adjudicated by a ballot of party members.
It’s important to apply all three of those principles. Not just that the race must be full-length, or that it must be decided democratically by members, but that it must also be a proper contest, a challenging battle of ideas and a test of abilities.
In a way, that is the most important criterion – without it, the time spent would not be used to its maximum effectiveness, and the eventual vote would lack crucial information about the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.
One implication of that argument is that it would therefore be desirable for the candidates to take part in public debates.
What are the arguments against? Well, there’s the traditional and understandable reluctance of front-runner candidates to put themselves at risk of a duffing up, particularly if heavily outnumbered by rivals who all stand to gain from such attacks. But that’s a decision by an individual for their own interests, not a wider principle.
Then there’s the traditional Tory discomfort with the way broadcasters want to force general elections into presidential debates which don’t accurately match how our political system works. That’s a reasonable concern at general election time, when we are electing MPs not Prime Ministers. But in a leadership election, people really are choosing the individual at the top, rather like a presidential process. So our constitutional reluctance ought to be less in these circumstances.
Finally, there’s the risk of damage being done to the Party by the sight of one Tory publicly attacking another – the ‘blue-on-blue’ problem. People don’t like it, it can do lasting damage, and it offers the Opposition ammunition to throw at both sides of the dispute later on. That’s all true, but really it’s a question for the candidates themselves to consider: is it really wise for them to go in studs-up on people who are still fellow Tories, and might well be future ministerial colleagues? After all, some blue-on-blue is already happening; whether members punish it in the ballot or not is up to them.
The case for is rather stronger. We are currently paying the price of a Prime Minister who was never really tested in a leadership contest before taking over as leader. As believers in competition, we should embrace the principle that encouraging candidates to compete will make them better, and will offer an early opportunity to identify and address any problems. Debates are one way to add to that scrutiny, in a format the winner may well end up performing in once they are in the top job.
Furthermore, this is a unique situation. For the first time ever, a party’s membership will democratically choose a sitting Prime Minister. That is better than a coronation of the type that gave us Gordon Brown and Theresa May, but it is still obviously less accountable than a full general election. There might be an election before too long, but in the meantime voters understandably want to see and hear more about the people who want to become Prime Minister, on whom they won’t get an up-front vote. One way to bridge that gap, and try to give at least some sense of wider scrutiny and transparency is to do these debates.
Finally, debates are not simply a personal risk, they are a party opportunity. How often do the Conservatives get the chance to effectively showcase a series of their prominent figures and ideas on TV? Passing up the debates would mean passing up a series of chances to reach and persuade voters. And while this leadership election is being shaped by MPs and decided by Tory members, the eventual winner will still need to bring voters with him in time – potentially quite soon. It’s never to early to start persuading people.
We don’t expect these debates to be easy for any candidate. But since when was becoming Prime Minister meant to be easy?
For those with the wind in their sails they could be risky, but the function of a leadership election is not to provide a safe space for frontrunners. Quite the opposite, in fact.
They also pose a challenge to those who are lagging behind, for whom it’s tempting to grab attention by being aggressively negative about better-performing rivals. Several candidates have done this so far, but I sense that members’ patience with personal criticism and negativity might be wearing a bit thin. Misusing a debate to stick the boot in on a colleague could backfire, and would in itself be instructive about the candidate.
In other words, leadership debates are an opportunity – for candidates and for the party – to be seized, not just a threat to be avoided. Doing them, and doing them right, could even give the eventual winner and the party as a whole a headstart in re-engaging with a disillusioned and frustrated electorate.