Has Cameron cornered himself with stance on TV debates?
Prime minister’s holdout for Green involvement as a way of countering Farage could prove costly to image and broader election strategy
Head-to-head party-leader debates on TV were a first for the UK in the General Election campaign of 2010. And in the build-up to the poll this May the debate about the debates – through which those in the media can enjoy reporting on themselves – is taking up more party time and column inches than the debates themselves are likely to.
Put simply, David Cameron has said that he won’t appear unless the Green Party is represented. Since the Greens have had an MP for longer than UKIP, his argument has logic – but his real reasons for concern over the democratic process are closer to home. Without the Greens, Nigel Farage can play up his outsider status and be a thorn to David Cameron’s right. Cameron, though, would desire a thorn to the left of the Lib Dems and Labour to add some balance.
In response to Cameron’s position, the Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP leaders have written to the PM warning him they’ll press for debates with an empty podium if need be. It’s a particularly awkward problem for Ofcom – what constitutes major-party status in a political period characterised by fluctuating polls and greater party diversity? But with coalitions more likely in future, it’s a problem that our system needs to get a handle on.
From a political standpoint, it’s hard to see how any party leader could put the debate genie back in the bottle, given the excitement that brewed over the televised contest of 2010. But while the pundits may have clear ideas as to which particular format would work for which party, there’s an argument to venture that all the frenzy is a bit unnecessary.
Firstly, although it’s sacrilege to suggest it, the debates may not prove to be as important as all that. Nick Clegg was the outsider last time round, and was seen to perform extremely well. But despite everyone’s earnest agreement with his arguments, his party still ended up with five fewer seats than in 2005 – despite a 22% share of the popular vote. By seeing the debates as so pivotal, following the criticism he received for taking part at all last time, David Cameron is giving his opponents ammunition to accuse him of running scared. That drip feed of accusation could do more damage to the PM’s reputation than the debates themselves (already, one poll has found that only one in five people think that Cameron actually wants the TV debates to go ahead).
Secondly, UKIP isn’t just a threat to the Tories. Having them on the podium is a challenge to Labour too, as Farage’s views on immigration get traction in some of Labour’s core urban areas. With that in mind, it could be in Labour’s interests to have as many of the smaller parties as possible in the third debate. Current proposals are for one debate involving Cameron and Miliband, one that also includes Nick Clegg and one that includes Nigel Farage. If that third debate also included the Greens, alongside the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, the resulting confusion would give no single fringe party the time to make a concerted impact. Miliband should be confidently saying, “Bring it on,” and backing the PM’s support of the Greens.
Perhaps the only option for a Conservative leader accused of being chicken is to up the stakes. And the series I’m keen to option – I’m a Politician, Vote me Out of Here – could be just the answer. Unfortunately, early soundings suggest the debate on the format will be just as involved. Labour is insisting on a villa in Tuscany rather than a tropical island, UKIP are refusing to eat the foreign food in the bush tucker trials and the Greens are insisting that candidates swim to the island to reduce their carbon impact. By contrast, being left to survive in a pit of poisonous snakes keen to feast on his downfall should be a familiar walk in the park to Nick Clegg. He’s up for it, and I agree with him.
Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.
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Hammer and tongs
How Cameron and Miliband slugged it out over the TV debates in today’s PMQs…