David Cameron to avoid TV debate with Boris Johnson over EU referendum

'I know everyone wants to turn it into a Tory soap opera but it is more important than that'

Oliver Wright
Political Editor
Sunday 08 May 2016 11:50
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Osborne says party wants to avoid 'Tory soap opera' over EU

David Cameron will not take part in a head to head debate over Britain’s future in Europe with either Boris Johnson or Michael Gove because it would turn the EU referendum into a “Tory soap opera”, George Osborne has claimed.

In an interview on ITV the Chancellor all but ruled out Mr Cameron taking part in any of the live TV debates on Britain’s membership of the EU being held in the run up to next month’s referendum.

Mr Osborne claimed the decision was because Mr Cameron was only one part of a “rainbow coalition” of political parties, businesses, and trade unions.

But privately the remain camp doesn’t want to take the risk of turning the referendum into a personal poll on Mr Cameron’s popularity – which might put off many Labour voters from backing a vote to stay.

Asked by ITV News’ political editor Robert Peston why there would not be a head to head debate Mr Osborne said: “I know everyone wants to turn it into a Tory soap opera but it is more important than that.

“You are going to be hearing a lot from the Prime Minister over the next few weeks. (But) there is a difference between the two campaigns. On the Leave side you have some Conservatives and Ukip. On the Remain side you have the Conservative leadership, the Labour Party, the trade union movement, the Greens – a rainbow coalition across the political spectrum. You are going to hear from a lot of different voices.

“It is true that when it comes to the Leave campaign there are a few voices you’ll hear again and again.”

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Mr Osborne also defended the defeated Tory candidate for London Mayor against accusations of running a racist campaign.

Zac Goldsmith has come in for criticism from several senior Tory figures, including former party chairman Sayeeda Warsi, who said he had used "dog whistle" tactics aimed at voters' prejudices in his attempts to win.

Even Mr Goldsmith's own sister, Jemima Khan, hit out at her brother's campaign tactics in the aftermath of his landslide defeat.

But appearing on Peston On Sunday, Mr Osborne said it was simply a case of “rough and tumble”.

"Politics is a robust thing in a democracy and in elections there's a lot of rough and tumble,” he said.

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"You are asked who are you, who do you associate with, what are your ideas. But if you can answer those questions, and clearly Sadiq Khan did answer those questions to the satisfaction of London voters, you get yourself elected.

"But that is the process we go through to make sure people are up to the jobs they are elected to."

The Chancellor said he did not accept suggestions that the Conservative campaign was "racist".

"All the questions we were asking are the questions we're asking of Jeremy Corbyn: who do you associate with, where do you come from, what are your thoughts and ideas?," he said.

"And these are perfectly legitimate questions to ask.

"I went campaigning with Zac. When I was with him he was arguing for more infrastructure in London, we were talking to young tech entrepreneurs. There was a positive campaign there, but obviously it didn't work in the end.

"When you lose a campaign, in the days afterwards every single thing you did was wrong. It's just assumed you got 100% of the things wrong. Indeed, when you win, you're regarded as complete political geniuses and everything you did was right. Of course, the truth is somewhere in between."

Mr Osborne also insisted that Mr Goldsmith still had a future in the Tory party.

He said: "He's a brilliant MP for Richmond, he's got incredibly important ideas about the environment, he's independent-minded.

"My advice to him is don't read any of these articles, switch off the TV programmes. Everyone will take a chunk out of you. If I was him I'd relax about that because that is part of the democratic process."

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