Conservative Diary

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Closing the deal 2/10: Prepare, prepare and prepare for the debates

The election debates (if they overcome last minute spanners-in-the-works) will be a crucial and potentially game-changing feature of the campaign. For Cameron they represent a big opportunity to win the voters' trust. For Clegg and Brown they are a lifeline and a chance to get back in the game. The first debate, hosted by ITN, is likely to pull the biggest audience. It will be the debate that counts most.

  • Expectations of Cameron are understandably high but they are too high. There needs to be a massive exercise in managing down expectations. If Cameron goes into these debates with a Manchester United-sized reputation and Brown begins with a Leeds-sized reputation there'll be a shrug of the shoulders if Cameron wins and big headlines if Brown wins with a memorable strike on goal.
  • Experience from other countries suggests that the third party candidates - not normally receiving much attention - tend to be the biggest gainers from these debates. Cameron needs to use the debates to make it very clear that a vote for the LibDems is Brown's best hope of clinging to power. This is the most important message that Cameron needs to get out to LibDem/Con waverers. That message will be easier to deliver if Clegg gangs up with Brown in attacking Tory policy on marriage and green issues.
  • The Conservative leader needs to look serious and likeable. Jokes at PMQs that impress MPs won't work with a TV audience.  He doesn't need to take risks (certainly not in debate one).  Brown and Clegg as the opinion poll stragglers need to be the gamblers.
  • Debate prep should already be underway. The election campaign will be busy enough. Take advice from seasoned debate professionals in America, Australia and particularly Canada (where the third parties really count).

Tim Montgomerie


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