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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.

New Statesman
Nigel Farage addresses members of the public during a political meeting at the Armstrong Hall in South Shields. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.