Tory concerns over leaders' TV debates grow

Brown has most to gain from television debates

When I suggested a couple of weeks ago that Gordon Brown had much to gain from televised debates between the party leaders, many disagreed. But over at ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie reflects some of the fears inside Tory circles:

My concern about these debates is very simple. The Conservatives have too much to lose when we are comfortably ahead in the opinion polls and therefore have to be very careful about the formats we are willing to accept. I hope . . . Team Cameron is insisting on just one or two debates.

The initial consensus was that the articulate and suave Cameron would emerge victorious from the debates, but there is a growing belief that Brown's forensic attention to detail could overwhelm the Tory leader. It is particularly significant that the Conservatives are opposed to policy-based debates on the economy, public services and foreign affairs.

The damage that policy scrutiny can do to the Tories was shown when gay support for the party fell by 17 per cent after its alliance with homophobic European parties received greater exposure.

Montgomerie also repeats his call for Nick Clegg to be excluded from "one of the debates" -- a demand which, particularly in the run-up to a possible hung parliament, broadcasters should reject. Chris Huhne is justified in complaining today about the persistent media bias against the Lib Dems:

Even where Labour and Conservative views are nearly identical -- such as on crime, Afghanistan or Iraq -- news organisations evidently feel they can eliminate the Liberal Democrat viewpoint in the interests of simple, adversarial debate. The idea that there might be more than two points of view in an argument is normal in other European democracies, but not here.

Reporters even refer to "both parties" or "both main parties" as if we were still in the Fifties-style two-party system, which is deeply insulting to voters who do not live in Labour-Conservative battlegrounds. Forty per cent of parliamentary seats have the Liberal Democrats in first or second place.

Leaders' debates should be designed to ameliorate this injustice, not reinforce it.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.