Nigel Farage addresses members of the public during a political meeting at the Armstrong Hall in South Shields. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How will the Tories justify Farage's exclusion from the leaders' debates?

Andy Coulson's warning that the UKIP leader has a "bit of a point" when he demands to be included highlights Cameron's dilemma.

Ahead of his phone-hacking trial on 28 October, Andy Coulson has taken to the pages of GQ again to offer David Cameron some free (and no doubt welcome) advice on the Tories' UKIP problem. Despite a slump in support over the summer, Farage's party is still polling at around 12 per cent, a level more than high enough to give Conservative strategists sleepless nights. 

Among other things, Coulson warns that Farage may have a "bit of a point" when he argues that a UKIP win in next year's European elections would justify his inclusion in the leaders' debates in 2015, predicting a Twitter campaign to ensure his participation. A recent ComRes poll found that 54 per cent of people believe Farage "should be offered the opportunity to take part alongside the other main party leaders".

The question of how the Tories should respond to the UKIP leader's inevitable demand to be included (even if his party fails to win the EU contest) is already prompting much discussion. 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 and Cameron is understandably keen to avoid a repeat in the case of Farage. 

In an attempt to maximise the PM's discomfort, Labour has consciously avoided opposing the inclusion of the UKIP leader in the debates. "We don't him to be in them [the debates] but we want Cameron to be the one who says 'no'", one senior strategist explained to me recently. 

Cameron has already moved to try and pre-emptively exclude Farage from the debates, telling the House magazine earlier this year: "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."

The PM 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. But it is 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 could 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 momentum will grow for Farage to be included, not least because it would make for good TV. 

The most likely outcome is that Cameron will veto Farage's inclusion on the basis that UKIP, unlike the Lib Dems, has no prospect of being in government after 2015. Tory strategist rightly calculate that the political cost of excluding him is less than the cost of including him.

But an alternative argument that some Tory MPs are likely to make is that the debates should only feature those leaders who could become prime minister. In an intriguing tweet during last Sunday's German leaders' debate, Conservative whip Greg Hands noted: "Interesting that German TV debate only has the leaders of the two parties who could conceivably be the Chancellor. No FDP, Greens, etc". 

After the precedent set in 2010, it's unlikely that Cameron would have the chutzpah to exclude Clegg, but that won't stop a significant number in his party attempting to do so. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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