Peter Hennessy said that he had “grave reservations” about the broadcasting of the leadership debates, which took place in Britain for the first time before the 2010 general election.
Warning that they meant future leaders would be selected for being “plausible tarts” rather than simply “decent”, he said a culture of “celebritocracy” could blight politics.
Lord Hennessy, a cross-bench peer, added that Clement Attlee, the post-war Labour prime minister, would never be elected today because his “considerable virtues” would be eclipsed by his “charisma and presence of a gerbil”.
“The problem with the debates is that the structure of them, the nature of the celebrity in Britain in parts of the media these days, mean that to shine in leadership debates before a general election, you need the characteristics of a plausible tart,” he said.
“Now, being a plausible tart is about 10 per cent of the requirement of being prime minister — no more. It’s not the most important bit.
“My fear is that we’ll be stuck with these leadership elections and when parties choose leaders in the future, the plausible tart bit will play too powerfully in their choice of leader and therefore rule out the decent but non-tarty people.”
“They’re only happy in their own company.
Speaking of the perils of 24-hour news, Lord Hennessy also criticised the habit of parties to rush into responses and “collapse in tittishness” by posting reactions to everything on Twitter.
“The cumulative power of celebritocracy and soundbitery means that it’s an ever narrower spectrum in which you operate,” he said.
“Clement Attlee wouldn’t get through any selection process now because his answers would be monosyllabic.
“He was a man of considerable virtue but it would be unimaginable today, because he had all the charisma and presence of a gerbil. It’s inconceivable now. If there was such a character around, he or she wouldn’t make it.”