David Cameron and the TV debates: Could a four-letter F-word swing the election?
Could a four-letter F-word decide the fate of the general election? That word is 'frit' (ironically much-beloved of Margaret Thatcher) and it's the accusation being levelled at David Cameron as he ducks, dives and evades over the TV leaders' debates and rules out altogether a head-to-head with Ed Miliband, the only other politician capable of becoming prime minister after 7 May.
David Cameron speaking at a 2010 televised leaders' debate
If the public do indeed conclude that the prime minister is 'frit', will it translate into another politically toxic F-word – fatal – and help propel Miliband into Downing Street, albeit heading either a minority Labour government or a convoluted coalition? Certainly an early Sky News poll suggested almost 80 per cent would be 'less inclined' to vote for a leader who refused to debate.
Predictably enough, John Prescott was among the first to spring into the Twittersphere, branding Cameron a “coward” who knew Miliband would “wipe the floor with him”. Nick Clegg wasn't too far behind, accusing Number 10 of trying to hold broadcasters “to ransom” and to “dictate the terms of the debate”. Equally predictably Douglas Alexander, Labour's election campaign chair, entered the frenzied fray by declaring that Cameron was guilty of an “outrageous” attempt to “bully” broadcasters into dropping their longstanding plan for a direct one-to-one between the Tory and Labour leaders.
The big gamble for the prime minister and his top election strategist, Lynton 'The Wizard of Oz' Crosby, is that avoiding a direct debate with Miliband still carries less risk than going ahead; partly based on the strong conviction of the influential Tory grandee and pollster Lord Ashcroft that taking part in the 2010 TV debates (against Ashcroft's advice but under strong pro-debate prompting from a certain Andy Coulson!) was the factor that cost the Tories an overall majority.
It's a gamble accentuated by the unpredictable factor of whether the electorate, having been treated to the 2010 debates, now view them as an indispensable dynamic of the democratic electoral process. Some senior Tories are at pains to float the notion that 2010 itself was an 'experimental' innovation and that it certainly didn't set a precedent that has to be repeated. Champions of this line of argument also point out that, although the first US presidential election TV debates were held in 1960, they weren't repeated until 1976. Would it be churlish to point out, however, that they've been an indispensable feature of US elections ever since '76 and the American public would not react kindly to any presidential wannabe who advocated ditching them?
By the same token, Tory defenders of David Cameron's position are eager to suggest that a British general election is very different from an American presidential election and that it's the party not the personality you're voting for. Er, that would have greater resonance IF the Tory strategy hadn't been to make it more of a presidential-style build up to the campaign with highly-personalised, almost troll-like, targeting of Ed Miliband. Or the inconvenient fact that, as recently as January, Tory chairman Grant Shapps went on TV to declare how much his leader was looking forward to taking on his Labour opponent in a televised debate.
In another twist in the escalating debate about debates, my old friend and colleague Alastair Campbell took to the airwaves and social media to condemn David Cameron's stance. Inevitably, the arch-spinmeister was (rightly) challenged on the Today programme by James Naughtie on why he had advised Tony Blair not to debate John Major on the box when broadcasters first proposed taking Britain down the US TV debate road in 1997. Fair point, but only up to a point, James. The real point is that times change and, in the modern media age, the idea of a general election campaign sans at least a single TV head-to-head between the only two politicians with a chance of becoming prime minister appears positively archaic and a disservice to the democratic process.
My view is that, despite the fact that Britain's political landscape is more fragmented than at any time in living memory and that public opinion of politicians is at a depressingly low ebb, the great majority of voters want to see such a debate take place. And, for them, the proposal (aka ultimatum) put forward by Craig Oliver, the prime minister's ex-BBC journalist director of communications, for one single 90-minute TV debate – before the campaign itself even officially kicks off and involving at least SEVEN party leaders – is not only ludicrously inadequate, but reeks of a tactic to try and kill the whole debate idea altogether. Or, at the very least, to reduce it to the equivalent of an inconsequential game of political pass-the-parcel.
The gamble for the PM is that the furore will soon die down and the public simply lose interest. The big risk is that if they don't, and the media keep up the pressure, then David Cameron would face a stark choice: either to back down humiliatingly and face Miliband or stand firm and appear 'wilfully neglectful' of the mood of the electorate.
Meanwhile Ed Miliband would be right to continue tactically throwing down the debate gauntlet to Cameron (while his supporters make chicken noises in the background), but also to ponder on the irony that, in the court of public opinion, one result of the prime minister ducking out might be to do him a bigger favour than a head-to-head actually going ahead! As a lifelong (but far from uncritical) Labour supporter, I must confess to savouring that possibility as the supreme irony that ducking, diving Dave from Number 10 would richly deserve.
Finally for the broadcasters themselves, another huge challenge looms in the days ahead. Are they willing to stick to their guns rather than allow Number 10 and the Tory strategists to dictate their election agenda? Or would they dare, in the best tradition of 'Have I Got News for You', to go ahead with an empty chair/lectern in place of David Cameron? It would be healthier for democracy if they plucked up the courage to call the prime minister's bluff. It could also potentially pose a fascinating issue for the broadcasting regulator Ofcom before the dust finally settles between now and early May.
Paul Connew is a former editor of the Sunday Mirror and ex-deputy editor of the Daily Mirror, co-author of the book 'After Leveson' and a longstanding Labour Party supporter who backed Ed Miliband for the party leadership. As the Mirror Group's former US Bureau Chief, Connew covered Ronald Reagan's presidential election campaigns