David Cameron is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to debates, though his reluctance to participate remains inexcusable. The Prime Minister has done his best to ensure that any TV debates before the General Election are completely unworkable, there are now set to be so many leaders involved that it will be almost impossible for any issues to be discussed above the cries of “Go to bed with Farage, wake up with Miliband” and “A vote for the SNP makes a tory government more likely”.
In one sense this is completely understandable, if the debates become nothing more than a farce then no-one will pay them any mind on May 7th. But by pushing so hard for the debates to be structured his way, the Prime Minister has not only pitted himself against transparency but also created an environment in which he will now probably perform worse than in the 2010 format. The BBC, fearful of accusations of left-wing bias, has acquiesced to almost everything he supposedly wants (except, of course, not holding debates at all), but Cameron has, to my mind, blown his own foot off.
As Prime Minister, Cameron should be a statesman above petty political bickering, but by putting figures such as Alex Salmond and Leanne Wood on the stage beside him, he has lowered himself to the level of a single issue party leader, which could reflect badly on him as he seeks to be perceived as the only prime-ministerial material. David Cameron has also created an issue for himself as minor party leaders will be unafraid to challenge economic orthodoxy: Whilst the PM has Labour boxed into a corner over their fiscal failures, it seems unlikely the Greens will lie down and accept the necessity of cuts, whilst any undercutting of the message about frugality that is central to the Conservative campaign could prove fatal to Cameron’s chances of victory.
A one-on-one with Ed Miliband is no more appealing, since providing that the Labour leader is able to make it onto the debate platform without the intervention of a supersonic bacon sandwich, he will emerge looking significantly more substantial than before. Miliband has set expectations so low (helped along by the Conservative PR machine) that he cannot fail to look impressive and thus has everything to gain from a clash with Cameron. The prospect of defeat in a debate with Miliband is so devastating that it would probably be better for Cameron if he were excluded from all debates than forced to take on Miliband alone.
Naturally, this analysis assumes that all you care about is the short term political points which are to be won and lost in these debates. There is a wider principle at stake.
For most people, an open and frank debate lies at the heart of a good democracy. Regardless of whether televised debates change any minds or even whether they are widely watched, it is right that we force our politicians to engage in a real debate, one where they are at least forced to acknowledge each other’s arguments. To kill off TV debates would be not only a step backwards on the road to greater transparency, but I think a mistake, as I like to think that David Cameron wants people to be better informed and feel less excluded by the political process. If we can reduce the number of people who feel ignored by the established parties, we can stem the rise of cheap populists, in the form of UKIP or the Greens.
I think it is worth acknowledging that the Prime Minister has little to gain from taking part in these debates, however good they are for the health of our democracy. Thus I believe we should all welcome his acceptance of the invitation to debate, no matter how reluctant it surely is. I somewhat of an optimist, so I hold out a small hope that Cameron can persuade the voters that he has a record of success and his plans for the country are both credible and effective, but the deck is stacked against such an outcome.