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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.