This week David Cameron delivered his “final offer” on the leadership debates. Ruling out a head-to-head encounter with Ed Miliband, Cameron said he would appear in just one debate with the six other UK party leaders while Craig Oliver, the Prime Minister’s communications chief, also accused broadcasters of turning talks over the debates into “chaos”. It’s clear that Cameron has been trying to duck these debates for some time. So why is he running scared like a chicken, or as Thatcher would have put it, being a “frit?”
You would expect, given the Tory party’s character assassination of Miliband as a weak leader, Cameron would have no problem facing him in a one-on-one debate. Surely the incompetent Red Ed, a man who can’t even get eating a bacon sandwich right, let alone handle the economy, would be no competition for the well polished media performer that is Mr Cameron?
You may also wonder if the negative press from refusing the debates would damage both Cameron and his party. Since presenting his ‘offer’, he’s been accused of everything from bullying the broadcasters to cowering and weaseling, while many see his prevarications as an attempt to hold the debates to ransom. Surely then, Cameron should just get on with it and stop ducking and dodging? It’s clear however that Lynton Crosby has calculated that the risk of not taking part in a head to head is much less damaging than the risk of doing so. How so?
Firstly, there is the perception that Miliband has performed so badly as the Labour leader and has such low personal ratings, that any half decent performance in such a debate can only benefit him, and would dispel any myths that he couldn’t possibly be PM. Then there’s the fact that Cameron has to defend his record, which some might say was not so much a smooth road to recovery as a pot-holed path scattered with broken promises and missed targets. And importantly, there is the political dictum that incumbents are almost always at a disadvantage in leadership debates. Just look across the pond to when Mitt Romney, pre-binders full of women, faced off Obama.
Added to this is the Conservative party’s fear of UKIP. Love him or loathe him, Nigel Farage is a strong media performer and any debate gives him a platform to raise the spectre of that which must not be named – immigration. A topic that the Conservatives are so keen to avoid, it fails to even feature on the party's list of six election priorities (as does the NHS).
In this context then, it makes strategic sense for Cameron to refuse the proposed 7–7–2 format. Adding weight to this, some might say the leadership debates are of little matter anyway, because outside of the Westminster bubble, the majority of the UK public could care less about whether the debates go ahead.
The problem with this however, is that it discounts the important role the leadership debates can and should play in the democratic process. In 2010, 22 million people watched the debates – over a third of the UK population. Whether or not they were a pivotal factor in deciding the result is another matter, but the leadership debates were an accessible way for the public to learn more about the policies of the different parties, and to make an informed decision before voting at the ballot box.
When Cameron initially called for the inclusion of the Green Party and then the DUP, one could claim he was simply arguing for fairness. But his previous remarks have made it evident that he isn’t opposed to these debates in principle, just when they don’t suit his own ends. It’s therefore hard to see his reluctance to engage with Miliband in a ‘presidential style’ debate as anything other than cynical politicking.
There’s something more insidious about Cameron’s “final offer” however. It’s not simply that he won’t debate one-on-one with Miliband. It’s that his offer clearly isn’t so much an offer as an ultimatum that rules out any meaningful debate. The 7-way debate proposed is farcical – 90 minutes for seven parties would clearly leave no time for real discussion - while hosting it so early, before the Conservative manifesto is released, enables them to avoid any real scrutiny on their future plans.
In a democracy, power is supposed to be vested in the people. As Prime Minister, David Cameron is a public servant to those who elected him, the very people who invested him with that title. Surely then, the UK public has a right to see him debate his possible successor, to ask him questions, and hold him to account for the last five years? Anything less is simply an affront to democracy.
The very fact that the broadcasters may have to empty chair Cameron is indicative of the sorry state of affairs that this long and protracted debate about debates has generated. Little wonder so many people are so disillusioned with politics, when one can see Cameron working not in the interests of best informing the public about party policy, but instead of making Machiavellian moves in a bid to hold onto power by any means necessary.
Whether this strategy pays off in May remains to be seen. Either way, Cameron’s unwillingness to seriously engage in leadership debates only helps to further tarnish the reputation of what many already see as a self-serving political class.