Crick was creeping up on them again on tonight's 'Newsnight'. After stalking the Tories over Coulson and Ashcroft a couple of weeks ago and stalking their supporters (and their poodles) in Norwich North last week, he was now stalking the Tories in Torbay: "I'm here in Devon for a unique and historic experiment by the Conservatives. They're sending out ballot papers to every voter in this constituency to ask who should be their candidate to be their next MP."
The story, of course, is a real one: The coming of American-style primary elections to the UK. A dispassionate report into their benefits and drawbacks would have been interesting, but this was a Michael Crick report. We shouldn't really have expected a serious cost-benefit analysis from him, only more Tory-baiting: "The public had no say whatsoever in picking this three-strong shortlist. And that had been whittled down from the original 99 names by Totnes Tory bigwigs."
"And local Lib Dems admit they're out to make mischief, getting their local members to vote for Nick Bye, since his record, they say, as mayor of Torbay will make him easiest to beat." Crick was not noticably aghast at these dirty tricks, but why would he be? After all, he's out to make mischief for the Tories too! So he just joked about it with local Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders. But is it just light-hearted mischief-making? The Lib Dems talk a lot about their radical agenda on political reform. You would have thought that open primaries might have been just up their street. But when a real democratic experiment is tried out, what do they do? They cheat. Crick should have seriously challenged Mr. Sanders about this, instead of merely doing a 'nudge-nudge-wink-wink' routine.
"And the Totnes Conservative chairman admits that she personally was sceptical and indeed remains nervous about an experiment imposed upon them by Tory HQ in London". Crick's pre-paraphrase of what the lady said was, shall we say, partial. She also praised how it was run & wished it well.
Five vox-pops followed. The first three were against the idea (two strongly). The fourth expressed no view but said that she hadn't even received a leaflet (a point Crick had been making). Finally, came a man who said the idea was "superb", but he also hadn't received a leaflet (hence, presumably, his inclusion). So, if Crick is to believed, that's 60% against, 20 % for and 20% don't know. Really?
You would have thought that Crick might, at some stage in his silly report, have discussed the thinking behind the open primaries with an approving Conservative spokesman. No chance.
In the tiniest sop to fairness, Crick's concluding bit-to-camera began, "This open primary has been a bold" (in the 'Yes Minister' sense of 'bold', do you mean Michael?) "and potentially quite exciting move by the Conservatives" ('quite'? Don't go overboard Michael!).
Then he got straight back to business with a long list of criticisms: "The trouble is that the experiment here in Totnes has been rushed, so candidates haven't had time to set up big campaigns, nor have voters been given a huge amount of information or a huge amount of choice. And the danger is that when the results are announced next week, the turnout will be pretty low. The danger is that the perceived failure here will doom the case for primaries and the price doesn't help either. The bill here, being met by Conservative central office, must be at least £40,000, maybe a lot more".
Of course, Crick is unlikely to be personally against the primary system. (Quite the reverse, I'd guess. Journalists love a joust, and the more jousts the better). He's only after the Tories. That explains his concluding swerve: "The prize, however, is not just greater public confidence in a particular party candidate but, more important, perhaps great confidence in the whole political process."
The issue of political primaries was then discussed by Nick Robinson, with Matthew Parris of the 'Times' (and an ex-Conservative MP), who hosted one of the Totnes hustings, and Neal Lawson of the left-leaning group Compass. This was more like it - a proper debate. In a deliciously acute spot of (unintentional?) undermining, Nick described Crick's report as containing "a bit of cynicism". I'll say! And Matthew said he was "a little bit sour". Again, I'll say!
Now, Mr Crick, do you fancy concentrating on the government for a few reports? It will surely make a nice change for you.