By Tim Montgomerie
And it's the view of 91% of Tory candidates that "the election debates gave the Liberal Democrats by-election status, and disrupted an already disjointed Tory campaign".
The people in charge of the Tory campaign refuse to join the consensus, however. Privately they have argued that without the debates Labour would have had much more oxygen of publicity for their attacks on the Tories as "cutters".
George Osborne, co-ordinator of the Tory election campaign has gone on-the-record with this view for Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley's British General Election of 2010, published later this month by Palgrave. This is what Kavanagh and Cowley write:
“In an implied admission that the media attention on the debates – preparations, build-up and post-debate analysis – squeezed the amount of discussion of policies a senior Conservative admitted: ‘We were quite happy with the coverage, thank you very much. Without the coverage of the debates and the process we’d have had days of Labour exploiting the voters’ fears of us.’ George Osborne thought the media interest on process protected his party ‘from weeks of heavy Labour pounding over issues like tax credits’. Labour strategists, aware of this, were frustrated. Osborne had been stung by the success of Labour tactics in the 2001 and 2005 elections when they had exploited voters’ fears of Conservative ‘cuts’. This time, ‘we killed off Brown’s tax and spend line’, he said”.
Without the debates the contest would certainly have been more of a two horse race and it will always be a moot point whether the Tory attack on Labour's record would have been heard more loudly than Labour's fear-mongering.
> On CentreRight yesterday, Tom Greeves argued that debates are an irreversibly good thing for democracy but that Cameron was ill-prepared by his team for them.