George Osborne offers an alternative suggestion to the perceived wisdom about the role of the debates in the election. He contends that rather than elevate the Liberal Democrats it shielded the Conservatives from Labour attacks:
"‘We were quite happy with the coverage, thank you very much. Without the coverage of the debates and the process we’d have had days of Labour exploiting the voters’ fears of us.’ George Osborne thought the media interest on process protected his party ‘from weeks of heavy Labour pounding over issues like tax credits’. Labour strategists, aware of this, were frustrated. Osborne had been stung by the success of Labour tactics in the 2001 and 2005 elections when they had exploited voters’ fears of Conservative ‘cuts’."
Essentially, the debates filled the news programmes with days of process rather than policy meat. Considering the rather bare policy cupboard the Conservatives had it is doubtful whether an aversion to the effect of negative campaigning was the sole motivation. Lord Ashcroft agrees with Osborne's rating of the Labour attack machine having been the subject of its attention during the campaign:
"It did prove to me that the Labour Party attack team was much more effective than the Conservative Party defence team."
However, he also provides the deeper reason why such avoidance was necessary in the first place:
"We did not make as much progress as we should have done in transforming the party's brand, and in reassuring former Labour voters that we had changed and were on their side. This in turn gave Labour's scare campaigns about Conservative plans more resonance than they would otherwise have had, and meant that, for many, voting Conservative was a much harder decision than it might have been."