The proceedings were chaired by PoliticsHome editor Paul Waugh who endeavored to keep the exchanges cordial between the Mirror’s Kevin Maguire and the Daily Mail’s Andrew Pierce.
With the general election fast approaching discussion understandably focused on predictions and personalities.
Maguire and Pierce were united in their expectation that May’s result would be too close to call and were disparaging about the choice of leaders on offer.
Pierce said it was “a mugs game to try and call this election. It is the closest ever but I do compare it closely to 1992 and I think that the factors that are similar are: for the Labour party they have got two lame duck leaders. Kinnock was a disaster and he lost the general election for the Labour party
“Ed Miliband is a disaster and actually the more TV exposure we see of him in this election campaign the worse it will be for the Labour party in my view because they picked the wrong brother and they know it…
“I think the Tories will be the largest party. I think Cameron will desperately try to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats but I don’t think it will be anything like as easy as it was the last time because the Tory MPs that I talk to can’t bear the Liberal Democrats, can’t stand the idea of doing any more deals with Clegg and those sanctimonious Liberal Democrats.”
Maguire was equally pessimistic about his preferred party winning a majority.
A minority government , he said, “could survive but it would be incredibly unstable…
“Trying to get five years will be difficult. But we are in different times and if voters don’t give one party a majority you have got to deal with what’s there. But it would certainly be a weak government, unquestionably.”
When Waugh suggested that a central issue for Labour was the ‘Ed problem,’ Maguire agreed, although less vehemently than his fellow panelist.
“There is no question that Ed Milband is an issue on the doorstep. It hurts Labour’s credibility and a leader shouldn’t lag behind their party they should lead their party,” he said.
Pierce added: “He is just ghastly. He is Wallace and Gromit. People like a cartoon but they don’t want a cartoon character in Number Ten. It’s a big issue for Labour. He’s weird.”
His treatment of Cameron was marginally more forgiving, however he did concede that “people don’t like him,” and criticised his resistance to the election TV debates.
“I think he should have done it. 22m people tuned into those broadcasts last time on radio and TV and they have been denied access to the three leaders and I think that is regrettable,” he said.
Maguire was equally disappointed at the final agreement on the debates format, saying it was a “lie to say debates, head-to-heads, suck all the oxygen out of the campaign; they put it in. What are we going to be left with? We are going to be left with silly poster launches and stunts.”
Having explored the leaders’ various short comings, talk turned to their prospective successors.
According to Maguire,“if Labour lost heavily the pressure internally would be to skip a generation and move away from those who were in the Blair-Brown cabinet, which would be the end of the leadership ambitions of Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham and a few others. I think the boat would have sailed if Labour loses heavily again because the next general election wouldn’t be until 2020…
“Interestingly if Labour win and Ed Miliband is in power that will probably happen as well. His successor, whenever that came, would be somebody like Chuka Umunna or Rachel Reeves. Dan Jarvis has been talked up although I find that hard to see. Tristram Hunt would be first person in the Labour history to be called Tristram.”
Pierce offered an equivalent analysis for the Conservatives and suggested that the party was “nursing a grievous sense of resentment of Cameron. So, he will go. George Osborne will sink with him because they won’t go for another posh boy – Michael Gove would run his leadership campaign if he was running. But it will be a straight fight and the last two will be between Boris and Theresa May.”
Eurosceptic Johnson as the Tory helm would, he added, “kill Ukip dead.”
Turning back to the current issues facing the parties, both journalists cited the SNP’s rise in Scotland as a potentially fatal blow to Labour’s chances in May.
Maguire labelled it “a salvage operation. It is how many of those 41 seats they can save.
“If they could save 25 of them they would be ecstatic, there would be fireworks and church bells, but at the moment it just looks like they are not going to get anywhere near that.”
Alex Salmond’s growing influence Westminster politics would, Pierce added, lead to “a terrible backlash, and it won’t do Ed Miliband or the Labour party any good at all.”
If Scotland was the biggest obstacle for Labour, the Conservative’s main electoral hurdle was summed up skillfully by the Mail columnist.
“The Tories’ best hope of having a majority is somebody pushing Nigel Farage under a bus.”