The great debate about debates is finally coming to an end, mostly due to media boredom. Which debate? The one about how many debates there should be before the general election happens, and whether or not David Cameron should/will turn up to one, none, or all of them.
Cameron has, in the past month, declared that he will not debate against Labour leader Ed Miliband personally, that he will only attend a televised debate of parties if the Greens are invited, that there ought to be a debate of all seven leaders of important parties and that he will only attend one debate. Each proposal has been well argued. The fact that they have all been suggested by the same person -in a never-ending succession- against a surprisingly unified chorus of opposition voices, lends to the significance.
Ed Miliband has declared the refusal to debate cowardice. Nick Clegg has offered to fill Cameron’s potentially empty chair. Members of the media with long memories have recalled that Cameron was once so keen on debating Gordon Brown that he offered to pay for his taxi to and from the television studio. The lofty statement from Conservative HQ that a one-to-one “sounds like the 1960s or 1970s”, and just won’t work in an era of “four parties”, indicates that this is not a stand on principle.
The 2010 debates have been argued by some to have cost the Conservatives their majority. Watched by 22 million they provided a colossal forum. While the huge approval bump for Nick Clegg failed to translate into votes, the Tories were no longer the most attractive option. When the election came, even Labour was spared wipe-out.
Another argument is that debates don’t matter at all, so why care? In 2010, polls were predicting a hung parliament before the debates. In the US in 2012, blogger Nate Silver gave the balance of probability to Obama winning the American election, with emphasis on victory secured through the Electoral College. The debates arguably made no difference, despite Obama performing less than well in several of them.
More than this though, David Cameron just doesn’t like TV debates. This is something that has been filtering out from the Conservative leadership team for years now. While Cameron can be successful in Prime Minister’s Questions, he doesn’t always come off well. His sneers and seemingly patronising manner, at least earlier on, resulted in him being nicknamed after the literary bully Flashman. There’s also a long-running sensitivity to public perceptions (as the efforts at hugging hoodies or promoting what he has now called “Green crap”) seem to underline. Endlessly cited anecdotes of when the Prime Minister told a female MP to “calm down dear”, or seemed to imply that another (Nadine Dorries) was sexually frustrated, can’t have helped.
The Prime Minister has undoubtedly managed to commit a short-term PR mess, and cause mild outrage. Astoundingly, we are faced with a situation in which every single non-Conservative party leader agrees on something, even if they aren’t quite sure what it is. From the Tory viewpoint, this was always going to happen- the debates simply aren’t worth it. Five years of government have produced plenty of opportunities to be hammered from the left or the right. A one-on-one argument with Ed Miliband, with a potential audience far larger than for PMQs could be disastrous if it went wrong. In a chaotic 7-way debate, Cameron’s statesmanlike persona could serve him well; the more so due to his 5 years as PM. Compared with Ed Miliband’s time in the Environment Ministry, or Clegg’s much derided deputyship, it’s not hard to see why. The gamble is that the short term fallout will be only be remembered by the media, who are already being chastised for their arrogance in challenging the aforementioned (rather grand) decrees.