Cameron moves to exclude Farage from the TV debates

PM says that only "the parties that are going to form the government" should be included if the debates are repeated in 2015.

Conservative commentators have long argued that one of the reasons the Tories failed to win a majority at the last election was the inclusion of Nick Clegg, the "none of the above" candidate, in the TV debates. The Lib Dem surge forced the party to direct resources away from attacking Labour and helped deny them victory in key marginal constituencies (the Conservatives finished second in 38 of the 57 seats won by the Lib Dems). A ConservativeHome survey of 109 Tory candidates in 2010 found that 91 per cent agreed that "the election debates gave the Liberal Democrats by-election status, and disrupted an already disjointed Tory campaign".

In view of this, it's unsurprising that David Cameron is determined not to repeat this tactical error in the case of UKIP. If and when the TV debates happen (and it remains a big 'if'), Nigel Farage's party, which stands a chance of winning the European elections in 2014, will undoubtedly push for inclusion. A recent ComRes poll found that 54 per cent of people believe Farage (who put in a typically assured performance on last night's Question Time) "should be offered the opportunity to take part alongside the other main party leaders". But in an interview with the House magazine, Cameron makes it clear that he's not one of them. He tells Paul Waugh and Sam Macrory: "Obviously, we have to decide on this nearer the time, but the TV debates should be about, you know, the parties that are going to form the government, in my view."

As you might expect, Farage has responded by describing Cameron as "embarrassingly out of touch". He said: "If UKIP's share of the opinion polls were to continue as they are now, to exclude us from the debates when the Lib Dems were included last time would make British politics look as outdated as the closed shop and embarrassingly out of touch.

"If he wants to restrict it to those parties who are likely to form the next government, he'd better not be booking studio time himself with confidence."

But Cameron makes a reasonable point. Though casually described as the UK's "third largest party" after outpolling the Lib Dems in recent months, UKIP still have no MPs and will be lucky to improve on this performance at the next election. Yet it is still likely to prove harder to justify the exclusion of Farage than it was to justify the absence of Alex Salmond in 2010. In the case of the SNP, the three main  parties can at least argue that only those parties competing to form the next Westminster government should be included, but this argument doesn't apply to UKIP. If the party is polling at least five per cent in 2015 (the threshold normally required for representation under a proportional system) then the right-wing press will likely demand the inclusion of Farage.

Incidentally, one guest at Wednesday night's ConservativeHome new year reception told me that George Osborne (that night's guest speaker), who remains the Conservatives' chief election strategist, has, in effect, declared that the debates will take place "over my dead body". So, as I said, don't count on a repeat in 2015.

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage said David Cameron was "embarrassingly out of touch". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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