Tom Richmond: What are you afraid of, Mrs May? Party leaders shouldn’t be allowed to dodge a debate.

Theresa May launched her manifesto in Halifax, but won't debate her blueprint with her opponents.
Theresa May launched her manifesto in Halifax, but won't debate her blueprint with her opponents.
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AS BREXIT was driven, in part, by a desire to repatriate decision-making powers from the EU, it’s curious that just three token paragraphs are afforded to the future of Parliament in the Tory manifesto.

Under the section ‘A flourishing and secure democracy’, which is far more succinct than the section on the Scottish Parliament, the Tories remain committed to reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 – even though legislators will technically have more work to do.

There’s a pledge to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – the unworkable law that was intended to prevent premiers like Theresa May calling snap elections – and plans to ensure the unelected House of Lords remains “relevant and effective”.

On electoral fraud, the Tories are adamant. “The British public deserves to have confidence in our democracy,” says the blueprint which was launched by the Cabinet in Halifax on last Thursday.

Yet, if this is so, the Conservatives – the party most likely to be in power in June 8 – should legislate to compel party leaders to take part in televised debates at election time rather than playing fast and loose with the rules.

And though Mrs May did front up on the BBC last night when she was interviewed by Andrew Neil, her control-freakery – and that of her confidantes – was beginning to insult before the humiliating u-turn on social care yesterday.

Yes, she does answer questions once a week in the Commons, and whenever she makes a Parliamentary statement, but this is no excuse – or justification – for not fronting up in an election that she called. Media access is so carefully controlled that Tory officials reportedly ask journalists for advance details of the questions that they intend to ask. Those present appear to be hand-selected; there’s no spontaneity.

Security is invariably cited for Mrs May’s inaccessibility while fleeting visits – including to The Yorkshire Post’s offices – are timed to the minute.

“We’re political journalists, we’re meant to be holding these people to account,” bemoaned Channel Four’s incorrigible political correspondent Michael Crick, who has made it his business to ask awkward questions at carefully choreographed PR events.

This wouldn’t have happened in Margaret Thatcher’s day when each day started with a themed press conferenced and a senior politician facing a public inquisition on the BBC’s Election Call that was hosted by Sir Robin Day, and then Jonathan Dimbleby, before falling by the wayside in 2010.

It worked – who can forget Mrs Thatcher’s exchanges in 1983 with a viewer over the sinking of the General Belgrano in the previous year’s Falklands conflict?

At least she fronted up. In contrast, look at Mrs May’s sterile and scripted appearance on The One Show with her husband Philip and the lack of rigour. After watching the Prime Minister’s tokenism – no one is ever allowed to ask a follow-up question if she dodges the issue in question – and the farce last Thursday when the Tories and Labour both shunned ITV’s leaders’ debate, leaving the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, Ukip and Greens to argue amongst themselves for two hours, the British democratic process deserves better.

If it’s good enough for America and France, it should be good enough for the UK that is lauded by the aforementioned Tory manifesto for being “the oldest of all large democracies”.

This is what I would set down in law. The leaders of any nationwide party above a certain threshold, say 50 MPs, should take part in two head-to-head debates of 90 minutes’ duration, one on the economy and domestic policy and the other on foreign affairs and Britain’s place in the world. There should then be a third debate involving every party leader.

This would ensure that the party manifestos and ideas that have emerged from leftfield, whether it be Mrs May’s controversial ‘dementia’ tax or Jeremy Corbyn’s nationalisation of the water industry, are scrutinised.

As the party leaders can’t agree the rules of engagement following the first debates in 2010 – Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn won’t debate face-to-face in York on June 2 when they appear on the same Question Time programme – it falls to Parliament to ensure the country can have confidence in the conduct of election campaigns – the very essence of a flourishing and secure democracy.

THE Tory manifesto devotes a whole chapter to Britain becoming “the world’s great meritocracy” – acknowledgement that the party understands the importance of skills. Yet six and a half pages of text include just two paragraphs on teachers – including a promise to offer newly-qualified staff “forgiveness on student loan repayments while they are teaching”.

However I remain to be convinced that this will help schools and colleges to recruit, and then retain, sufficient teachers and lecturers. As class sizes rise and specialist teachers quit, this issue must not be allowed to pass without further comment. How many new teachers will there be by the end of the next Parliament?

FOR the avoidance of doubt, it’s not just 
the media who have criticised Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, over her muddled policing plans.

A bylined column in The Times saw Jeremy Corbyn’s right-hand woman described as “increasingly hapless” by Sheffield’s David Blunkett. He is is more qualified than most to comment on the basis that he ran the Home Office successfully during New Labour’s second term.

Just saying...

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk

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