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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.