At last, the cut and thrust of debate returns to politics

Congratulations to Michael Howard for unwittingly giving us six months of genuine debate. Just when we all thought political debate was dead and buried up pops the Conservative leadership struggle. Five candidates initially in a sudden death contest at their party conference. And sudden it certainly was for David Davis. I doubt if he will now willingly subscribe to the Andy Warhol dictum that everyone should have their fifteen minutes of fame. For our East Riding David it took just that number of minutes to go from front runner to runner up.

For once those appearances before the party faithful mattered. Gone were the ritual party pieces designed for the television cameras with the guaranteed standing ovation. In their place came orations lovingly crafted for the representatives of Conservative associations near and far - all of them wielding powerful votes in the leadership contest.

None of this would have mattered had not the same flock of party members failed to touch their collective forelocks to their parliamentary elders and betters in sufficient numbers to hand the leadership election back to the MPs. Frankly, I was suprised that this proposal got a majority at all let alone missing out on the required two thirds majority. It is one thing to hang on to elitism but it's quite another to go back to it.

If there were not swathes of Britain without Conservatism representation in parliament Michael Howard might have got his way, but with the vote remaining with party members, the spin off has been a nationwide touring double act with a genuine choice between entirely different candidates, with different styles and different strategic positions.

I sense that interest in the contest has gone way beyond the Conservative members and the political junkies, not least because the final result is still far from sure - whatever the pundits say - and because the wider electorate is sizing up post-Labour contenders. The recent weeks of media attention on the debates have done the Conservative party a great deal of good, not least because of the generally good atmosphere in which they have taken place.

David Davis has all the heavy breathing macho characteristics that give him a clear advantage in the hand-to-hand jungle combat that used to pass for political campaigning. He also rightly commands admiration for his successful climb out of tough beginnings. The unanswered question is whether the political arena now and in the near future favours commandos or sophisticates.

If genteel charisma is required, David Cameron oozes it from every pore. His youth and inexperience are said to be a disadvantage but I am far from convinced. One comparison is with Pierre Trudeau in Canada. Trudeau did not join the Liberal Party until the summer of 1965. Four months later he was an MP and in April 1967, after only sixteen months in Parliament, he became Minister of Justice. Within a further six months the Prime Minister, Lester Pearson, had announced his retirement and Trudeau was persuaded to become a candidate for the vacant party leadership. After less than three years in parliament Trudeau was Prime Minister, serving for a total of fifteen years. He was described in one obituary as "the most charismatic figure of the twentieth century." Ability proved more significant than experience.

The Tories' tribulations will soon end but this recently acquired public appetite for debate will not go away. There is a lesson here for Labour. When, or perhaps it is still if, Tony Blair retires, there ought not to be an immediate coronation of Gordon Brown. The public will want an open contest between competing candidates and it deserves it. It will do Labour no good to be seen to have "fixed" the succession for Gordon Brown.

Is debate now firmly back on the political agenda? If so, what are the implications for the eventual general election campaign? It has been decades since there were public meetings between different parties and candidates. Even public meetings with a single candidate are a rarity these days. The parties need to heed the trend and to take the risk of exposing their candidates - and particularly their leaders - to the rigours of debate and of cross examination.

As a postscript I recall a meeting in West Leeds during the 1983 election campaign which illustrated the splendid unpredictability of these events. The chairman for all my meetings was the late Brian Walsh QC, who later became Recorder of Leeds. Brian was a splendid chairman and had the knack of being able to draw proceedings to a close before the meeting began to drag. At Holy Family School in New Wortley we had a lively audience and, after a longish period of questions, Brian said, "Well we've had an excellent meeting and I think it's time to draw it to a close and to let Michael go on to his next engagement."

There was, however, a very agitated young man at the back who wanted to put a last question. Brian tried gently to fob him off, but the man insisted: "It's a short question." Brian continued to close the meeting, but the man insisted, "It's only a very short question." Eventually Brian relented, "As long as it really is only a short question." The man got up and asked, "What would the candidate do about Northern Ireland?" <

December 2005