General election leader debates: It's two-against-one for 3-3-3

Miliband and Clegg are ready to sign up to three debates over three weeks. They say Cameron is running scared.

There is a casual assumption in Westminster that televised leader debates at the next election will happen. This belief is based on the fact that all three main parties have said that they expect them in theory and the political cost of appearing to chicken out is very high.

But in reality the deal is far from done. Labour and the Lib Dems are both ready to sign up for the so called “333” model – that is, three debates between three leaders over three weeks. The obstacle, they say, is the Tories. The No.10 line is that, naturally, candidates to be Prime Minister should set out their stalls in telly combat, but that doesn’t mean a repetition of the format that was used in 2010. (Note also that only Miliband and Cameron are seriously in the running to be PM. The distinction is important because it excludes Nigel Farage and brackets him as a political B-lister along with Nick Clegg.) One complaint from Conservative strategists is that the three TV marathons “sucked oxygen” out of the campaign, squeezing out everything else, by which they really mean the TV debates allowed Clegg to drain the hopey-changey, fresh faced new-kid appeal out of David Cameron’s campaign.

There are plenty of Conservatives who think the decision to allow the Lib Dem leader to project himself as the “neither of them” candidate in the first debate cost the Tories a majority. That isn’t a trick that Clegg can pull off again – novelty value and youthful idealism are not available to him. But he can still make life difficult for the Prime Minister and the Labour leader.

One of the messages that senior Lib Dems have taken from Ed Balls’s kind(ish) words about Clegg in the New Statesman this week is that Labour are well aware that, on current polling trends, the next election will result in a hung parliament. The shadow chancellor – Clegg’s team speculates – is thinking about shuffling off his image as a tribal politician whose personal animus towards the deputy Prime Minister would be an insurmountable obstacle to governing partnership. As one surprised Clegg aide put it to me yesterday: “It wasn’t just a nod in our direction. He [Balls] really crossed the street to come and say hello.”

This cheers the Lib Dems up no end. It reassures them that their strategy of running as the middle-way party that might moderate Labour and Tory administrations, preventing them from veering too far left or right respectively, is working. One reason Clegg is so keen on the “333” debate formula is that he can gang up with Cameron against Miliband on fiscal policy and team up with Miliband against Cameron on social policy – indicating that a government with Lib Dems in it will take the edge off Tory nastiness or keep Labour spendthrift habits in check, whichever is required.

The Labour side, meanwhile, like the “333” formula because they think Miliband comes across best when given time to set out his arguments. As I wrote in my column this week, Miliband would go into the debates as the underdog, known to be less charismatic than his rivals, and could end up surprising people. He isn’t a flashy soundbite-merchant and he takes a bit of warming up in front of a camera, but on a good day he is capable of making Cameron look shifty, tetchy, haughty and insubstantial in a debate.

In particular, the Labour side want the three debates to be in the final three weeks of the campaign. This is partly to avoid making the long run-up too presidential but also because it is felt having a high-octane finish to the battle will increase the public feeling that it is a “change election”, when the Tories are determined to make it all about continuity, low risk and predictability. It is probably going too far to suggest Labour’s top team expects a last minute surge of Ed-mania but they do think he will benefit if the debates are packed into the last lap.

Senior Labour figures doubt that No.10 is really committed to having the debates at all. (For a long time Cameron avoided saying they should happen.) Labour sources accuse the Tories of stalling, waiting to see what happens in European elections in May and the referendum on Scottish independence in October and, ultimately, hedging their bets in case they decide the whole thing is too risky. Aides to Clegg and Miliband say with some relish that their candidates are ready to sign tomorrow and that Cameron is running scared. That’s the first two-against-one formation of the 2015 general election campaign. It won’t be the last.

The leader line-up for 2015. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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