No debate, no cry

Mr. Cameron declared that he will not take part in any leaders’ debates unless the Greens are included.

This week’s Prime Minister Questions were a slightly meta-experience. The British public who tuned in on Wednesday saw not one debate, but a debate about a debate.

This unusual spectacle came after Mr. Cameron declared that he will not take part in any leaders’ debates unless the Greens are included, sparking an outpouring of frustration from the other Westminster parties.

For Labour this is a clear sign the PM is “chickening out” of the debates; “In the words of his heroine, Lady Thatcher, he is frit” said the Labour leader, to rapturous cheers (on both sides of the house).

Mr. Cameron’s argument, that excluding the Greens – who have an MP in the Commons and almost as much support in the opinion polls as the Lib Dems – would be undemocratic, hides a tacit truth.

Debates are never in the interest of the incumbent. Leaders have always known this, and it is a central reason why we only had our first televised debate in 2010, whilst the Americans (who are obligated to take part due to their two party system) had theirs in 1960.

“Every party politician that expects to lose tries that trick of debates and every politician who expects to win says no” said John Major. This is why Home shirked Wilson’s invitation; Wilson denied Heath’s; Thatcher rejected Kinnock’s and Blair vetoed Hague’s. In fact, the only reason the 2010 debates happened at all was because Gordon Brown was so unpopular he felt like a challenger.

The 2010 leadership debates were a headache for senior Conservatives who blame them for their leader’s failure to win an overall majority, when Nick Clegg un-expectedly stole the insurgent mantle. BBC political Editor Nick Robison claims the Prime Minister says “the debates at the last election had sucked the life out of the campaign and given a boost to his opponents.”

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The stakes today are even higher. Mr. Cameron’s chances of staying in Downing Street depend on stopping the surge of support for UKIP, so he’s unwilling to do anything that gives Nigel Farage a helping hand.

However, rejecting the leadership debates is no easy issue for a Prime Minister flagging in the polls. A ComRes survey on Wednesday found that 55% of voters feel Cameron is “acting cowardly in trying to avoid TV debates with the other leaders” compared to 23% who felt he was not. Clearly, the PM thinks this short term loss of support is outweighed by the potential damage of taking part. This is of course a calculation we cannot ever know the answer to but, as Tom Mludzinski argued today; this ambiguity makes it “all the more fun to speculate on”.

But despite all the speculative gambling by the PM’s advisors, might the PM be forced to take part despite his protestation? In an unprecedented move Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have sent identical letters to the Prime Minister, warning him it would be “unacceptable” for him to block the debates. These letters were clearly intended to persuade hesitant broadcasters that ‘empty chairing’ the PM will not be significantly damaging.

From the broadcaster’s perspective, the option of having an empty lectern instead of the Prime Minister – as Roger Mosey, the BBC’s former editorial director, is purported to have said is possible – is highly risky.

With the BBC’s licence fee and charter up for renewal, ITV and Channel 4 worrying about government regulation and BSkyB’s recent takeover bid a painful reminder of the risks of political intervention, it will be interesting to see who (if any) will stick their head above the parapet.

However, is the end of televised debating in the UK a loss for democracy? Perhaps not. Responding to the first ever proposal for a televised debate in 1964 then Prime Minister Alec Douglas Home said, ‘You’ll get a sort of Top of the Pops contest. You’ll then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a scriptwriter.’ The ‘celebritisation’ of British politics is no longer a theory, but a practical reality in the rapid rise to power of Tony Blair, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

Mrs. Thatcher warned that presidential-style debates in the UK risked turning the campaign into show business. “We’re not electing a president, we’re choosing a government”, she said. Perhaps, she is right. This is one American import we could really do without.