Shapps signals that election debates may not happen in 2015
By Tim Montgomerie
Follow Tim on Twitter
For my review 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.
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.