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Lord Ashcroft and Labour's campaign chiefs agree that election debates cost Conservatives a majority

Today's News of the World reports that Lord Ashcroft is "to publish a devastating attack on Prime Minister David Cameron." The majority owner of ConservativeHome, former Tory Treasurer and mastermind of the party's marginal seats campaign will use a review of the general election campaign to criticise the party leadership's decision to agree to election debates and to campaign on the big society theme. ConservativeHome's own review of the General Election campaign (PDF here) also concluded that the party was damaged by (1) the agreement to debates and (2) the way the big society message eclipsed a retail message.

One "friend" of Lord Ashcroft tells the Sunday newspaper's Ian Kirby:

“We may have a Conservative Prime Minister, but Lord Ashcroft believes the election campaign was a disaster and that the blame lies with David Cameron and his coterie of advisers.”

I am aware that Lord Ashcroft is writing a review of the campaign but I have no idea if it is "devastating", as the News of the World suggests.

THE_FIRST_ELECTION_DEBATE_1 Coincidentally, Anne McElvoy writes a fascinating review of the impact of the debates for The Sunday Times. Here are some highlights:

  • "Clegg had joked he would “dance across the stage in a pink tutu” to have a chance to argue with the main parties on an equal footing."
  • "Cameron’s [debate preparation] team featured Jeremy Hunt, now culture secretary, as Clegg, “on the grounds,” said one Central Office observer, “that they are as bland as each other”. Michael Gove, a product of the BBC and The Times, played the presenters. The involvement of Hunt was to prove most useful in that his “Clegg” gave the first warning that the Tories might be facing a Lib Dem-shaped problem. Hunt bears a vague similarity to Clegg, good-looking, but not strikingly so, with a relaxed verbal delivery. He had spent Sundays watching Clegg’s performances and analysing the Lib Dem leader’s sentence structure — short and choppy. Cameron uses long sentences, rolling from one idea to the next. The difference allowed Clegg to sound irreverent and incisive next to stiff Dave and grumpy Gordon."
  • "Clegg’s team had started its run-up earliest. They knew the debates were a unique opportunity to put their man on an equal footing with the other candidates. Their Brown was played by Chris Huhne. Cameron was impersonated enthusiastically by David Laws, an experience he would later say was good preparation for his key role as Treasury axeman."
  • "The story of the first clash, which was held in Manchester, is now part of the lore of great political upsets. Clegg was the mouse that roared in front of almost 10m viewers... Clegg’s casual stance — hand in pocket but gazing directly into the camera — came across as fresh and unfettered, and earned the Lib Dems an unprecedented surge of support, especially among first-time and younger voters."
  • "By the second debate, on foreign policy, Cameron had improved. He was following advice to slow down and speak clearly and directly."
  • "Cameron’s failure to win outright was a point not lost on donors, who had filled his war chests, and internal critics whispering “Told you so”. The Tories’ decision to agree to equal status in the TV debates for the Liberal Democrats remains controversial and was a huge tactical error by Camp Cameron. Labour figures like Straw, Muir and Douglas Alexander — and Gisela Stuart, who held the Tory’s target seat Birmingham Edgbaston for Labour — all believe that without them Cameron would have had an absolute majority. “Without the debates,” Muir assesses, “the campaign would have moved from one Tory poster launch to the next, and it would have been very hard for us to get our footing or momentum.”"

McElvoy ends with this paragraph:

"Steve Hilton, whose symbolic “New Tory” bicycle now has its own parking space at Downing Street, insists that the gamble was worth it. He believes the “New Politics” the debates produced are superior to the prospect of a Tory government with a small majority, held hostage by its own right wing. “We didn’t win enough,” Hilton told friends, “but we beat Labour and we’re in No 10 doing what we want to do with people we get along with. That’s absolutely fine, it really is.”

Tim Montgomerie


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