There is no debate - Theresa May is right to reject TV showdowns, comms pros agree

Theresa May's decision not to participate in televised debates ahead of June's snap general election is "strategically sound", political communicators agree - but they are divided on how influential Lynton Crosby will be in the election.

May, pictured yesterday announcing her intention to fight an election, has said no to TV debates (Credit: James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock)
May, pictured yesterday announcing her intention to fight an election, has said no to TV debates (Credit: James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock)

Theresa May - whose director of comms Katie Perrior yesterday handed in her resignation - has ruled out appearing in any live showdowns against her political rivals.

Howell James, who was a political secretary to John Major as Prime Minister, and later ran Government comms under Blair and Brown, said he'd have made the same decision.

"If I was where the PM is now in terms of polls and wider support, her decision not to do debates – which give her opponents a platform of equivalence – is strategically sound. But it is a loss for the democratic process and for the broadcasters," said James, who has worked for the agency Quiller since 2014.

Andy Sawford, a former Labour MP who now co-owns Connect Communications, said a TV debate would be risky and time-consuming.

He said: "Prime Ministers with commanding poll leads don't do debates because they are unpredictable, time consuming, and give opponents a platform. Gordon Brown only agreed in 2010 because he was behind in the polls, and David Cameron refused to do a head-to-head in 2015. This time around, Theresa May will be called a chicken by her opponents but swing voters won't give a stuff about it."

No backtracking over backlash

Joe Mitton, a senior consultant and the agency PLMR and a former adviser to Boris Johnson, said that backtracking on her position would be damaging to May's narrative.

He said: "While pressure may be piled on May in the media - mostly by journalists keen for some political drama - the narrative of this campaign so far has been about a steadfast, decisive Prime Minister leading Brexit negotiations. Backtracking on her TV debate position would undermine that narrative."

John Lehal, who has led leadership campaigns for two Labour MPs and recently sold his agency ICG to Four, said May "should put herself up" to a TV debate, and could benefit from doing so.

However, he conceded that she would not, saying: "May would benefit from the chance to define herself with voters and a debate is a great way to do that. However, Labour’s polling is so weak that May has little to gain from putting herself in the firing line. This will be the Conservatives' 'No Risk' election, for better or worse."

PRCA director-general Francis Ingham agreed, saying: "May's judgment here is spot on. There will be criticism, of course. The Mirror will deploy its chicken, and May will be accused of running scared. But the truth is this - her position is so strong she will simply shrug it off. The manufactured fury will die within one news cycle. And her 'safety first' campaign will roll on to its three-figure majority."

The Crosby factor

It came as little surprise yesterday that Crosby Textor, the campaigning agency co-founded by election strategist Sir Lynton Crosby, has been lined up to run another campaign for the Conservatives.

Quiller's James played down the importance of Crosby's role, saying: "No ad agency, polling company or other advisor is decisive. The public have usually pretty much made up their minds as we go into elections, so we should be cautious about over emphasising the Westminster bubble element of campaigns."

However, he conceded that it was "vital to have people around who have run previous campaigns, understand the pressures and can operate at pace".

Sawford suggested Crosby would see this general election as a chance to make amends for last year's failed attempt to make Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith London's mayor. 

He said: "Crosby has a rare talent for crafting simple messages that cut through to middle England, but his instinct to turn right when things get tough needs to be reined in sometimes. He did Zac Goldsmith no favours in the London Mayoral election last year, and will be hoping to recover his reputation. Crosby will relish the chance to go on the offensive in this campaign, with Jeremy Corbyn firmly in his sights."

Mitton also predicted a campaign focused on Corbyn's perceived weaknesses.

"We can expect Crosby will go hard in attacking Jeremy Corbyn, with a negative campaign focussing on Corbyn’s character and record. The strategy will be that even pro-EU voters and moderates will baulk at the idea of a Prime Minister Corbyn," he said.

If the Conservatives are victorious, as is predicted, Mitton hinted that Crosby might be eyeing an extended role under May.

Mitton said: "Following the Michael Howard defeat in 2005, many in the Conservative Party said that Crosby should be trusted to deliver impeccable campaign logistics, but that he should be kept out of policy-making decisions. His views on immigration in 2005 were seen as out-of-step with mainstream British public opinion. With a 20-point lead in the polls and a vastly different national mood this time around, it will be interesting to see whether the Party sticks to that separation of powers."

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