Tom Richmond: Bickering leaves prospect of poll set-piece open to debate

Michael Heseltine.
Michael Heseltine.
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Don’t get too excited about a repeat of the historic TV debates between the main party leaders that took place during the 2010 election campaign; they’re far from a certainty when Britain goes to the polls in just over 18 months time.

Even though all the main parties are finalising their election strategies and recruiting campaign managers, press officers and so on, there is still no agreement in place for David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to discuss the key issues in front of the cameras.

The main sticking point is that no one knows how to accommodate the United Kingdom Independence Party whose boss, Nigel Farage, will expect to take part in any debate, especially if his party garners the most support in next year’s European elections.

And this is where it gets complicated. Ukip still does not have any representation at Westminster in spite of a string of impressive by-election performances – while the Greens do have a MP in the form of environmentalist Caroline Lucas.

If Ukip are given a platform in the debates, then the Greens will demand likewise and the repugnant BNP will duly follow suit. Then there’s the question of accommodating the nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

There has, I am told, been talk of one set-piece debate taking place between the leaders of those parties that are fielding candidates in at least 500 seats, followed by separate verbal jousts between Cameron and Miliband – the only two leaders who will realistically be vying to be PM.

Yet the Liberal Democrats have already indicated that they will veto such a scenario because they insist Clegg merits a place at the top table. As such, I can easily foresee a scenario where each of the main parties blames the other if the debate talks collapse.

My argument is this: if they’re sufficiently convinced of their position on dog-whistle issues like immigration, they should have nothing to hide from taking the argument to the likes of Farage.

And what would it say about Britain’s claim to be the cradle of democracy if voters are denied TV debates when they are a pivotal part of campaigns in America or Australia where Labor PM Kevin Rudd went head to head this week with opposition leader Tony Abbott?

The only winner would be the apathy party and all those who do not exercise their vote because they’re fed up with the complacent and serial self-interest of their national leaders.

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MANY will be depressed by this assertion from Ann Widdecombe: “When I did my TV programme on benefit abuse, four million people watched. If I was addressing the Commons, only 40 people outside Parliament would have noticed.”

I agree. Most politicians now believe that the TV studios are more important than the Houses of Parliament when it comes to advancing their policy arguments – and careers.

But Widdecombe, the former Tory MP and Home Office minister, should remember that she became a household name because of her passion for politics, her feistiness and her willingness to be independently-minded (she was one of the few Conservatives to support the hunting ban).

They are qualities that need to be championed if Parliament is to regain its rightful place in the public’s consciousness.

They’re also endearing traits that the Tories need to cherish after revelations that membership has fallen below 100,000 for the first time in post-war history.

Unless David Cameron’s Tories have MPs and councillors who inspire, this decline will further undermine public involvement in politics – the key to improving policies and services for all.

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DESPERATE times at scandal-hit Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals NHS Trust which was already in ‘special measures’ for negligent care before the furore this week over chief executive Karen Jackson’s pay rise to £170,000.

At first, the Trust said the salary increase was £30,000. Then, after the Yorkshire Post revealed that Ms Jackson earned more than David Cameron in another “reward for failure” episode, its PR team said the rise was a mere £25,000.

It doesn’t reflect well on a Trust that lists a PR and Communications Officer, a Marketing and Communications Officer and a Head of Communications and Marketing as contacts point on a Press missive about a forthcoming board meeting.

Wouldn’t some of this money be better spent on nurses, given the Trust’s obfuscation on Ms Jackson’s pay and perks?

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EXCELLENT analysis by Dan Hodges, son of Labour MP and actress Glenda Jackson, about the crisis of confidence now afflicting Ed Miliband’s party.

“Gordon Brown tried to build on New Labour, but failed. Ed Miliband has tried burying New Labour, and that’s failed too,” he observes.

“The result is that we now have the spectacle of desperate Labour MPs begging Peter Mandelson to come back and run a New Labour-style campaign to try to sell Ed Miliband’s anti-New Labour agenda.”

It says it all.

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LET me get ths right. Labour want the increase in rail fares to be capped below the four per cent announced on Tuesday, and Maria Eagle – its transport spokeswoman – intends to spend even more money on cycle lanes than the £77m set out this week.

How?

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CAN anyone answer this question? Has the law been recently changed to enable cyclists to ignore red lights at busy junctions or pedestrian crossings?

I only ask because I’ve now concluded that there is one law for safe, responsible drivers and another for unsafe, irresponsible cyclists.

I ask this after I saw a rider ignore a red light at a crossing, prompting a mother with a pram to take desperate evasive action.

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FORGIVE me if I don’t get carried away with Stuart Broad’s bowling heroics 
this week that secured an Ashes series win over Australia and headlines like “Stu-pendous”

If I had anything to do with cricket, he wouldn’t even have been playing after his “Broad the Fraud” antics earlier in the series when he brought the sport into disrepute by refusing to walk after clearly edging a ball to first slip.

I’m afraid that shameful episode 
will linger far longer in the mind than one spell of bowling against an average Aussie side.

HOW HESELTINE HANDLED THE POWER GAME

NOW we know why Michael, Lord Heseltine remains such an energising influence when it comes to regeneration policy.

According to the new book Conundrum by Tory MP Richard Bacon and journalist Christopher Hope which charts Whitehall mismanagement, Heseltine breezed into the then Department of Environment in 1979 with a new approach.

He asked his permanent secretary John Garlick what management information he received on his desk every Monday morning in order to check that the department, then in charge of local government and the inner cities, was meeting its objectives.

When told the answer was “none”, Heseltine intervened. He said: “I wanted to know exactly what the department was doing, who had authorised what objectives, how the objectives met the priorities of the government and so on.”

I wonder how many ministers and council leaders follow this mantra today. If they don’t, they should.