The PM’s regressive PR strategy silences debate

states the case that when the Prime Minister refuses to engage in any televised debates with opposition leaders, she denies any challenge

Image: Sky News

Leaders’ debates: to broadcast or not to broadcast? If so, in which format? How many leaders should be given platforms? This is the electoral hot potato of the decade – something former PR guru David Cameron manipulated in the 2015 election. Partaking in only one leaders’ debate, staying quiet and allowing the opposition to bicker among themselves, before empty-chairing the next debate to create a de facto “opposition leaders’ debate”. A surprise majority was, in hindsight, the natural outcome of such a coherent campaign.

The control Number 10 has on this agenda is a beastly political weapon, which renders it telling that our beloved PM Theresa, low on the profile and short on the Brexit details, is unwilling to deploy it. No filleting Jeremy Corbyn live on TV, despite what much of the right-wing commentariat were rubbing their hands in glee and anticipation to see. No going after the Lib Dems that threatens to rob her of a landslide either. All in all, a sober and information-free affair.

This is by no means a break from Theresa May’s go-to PR strategy. A far cry from the social media-fuelled extraversion of David Cameron, the Prime Minister shies away from the camera and Facebook feed, advocating instead that Brexit talks be held in total secrecy before the final deal is announced. As such, we’re kept on the edge of our seats until every last policy detail is ironed out, which hopefully will take long enough for the Tories to bag another majority. It’s all a giant con, most likely, but we have little else to go by in the meantime (bar details of embarrassing meals with Juncker, courtesy of the European Commission’s leak offensive).

Even if we were to take May’s word for it – that Britain’s negotiating cards are best played close to her chest – a TV debate would involve her stubbornly holding them live on air, much to the frustration of genuine questions from opposition leaders. More likely, though, is the simple notion that this Tory government has no clear plan for Brexit. We know what we’re keeping off the table, but anything else is fair game – including the rights of British expats and settled EU nationals. Such chaos could only lead to a debate of pure speculation as to what happens next. All leaders would look equally clueless – despite one of them being Prime Minister.

All that the Tories can hope for now is that, accommodated by their forced silence, the loud shambles of Corbyn’s Labour campaigns against itself. Blair’s arrival back onto the political scene has already flared up some well publicised infighting. The invisible Labour leadership contest remains a point of focus, with Yvette Cooper’s harsh PMQs putdown of May’s reasons for a snap election pointing her out as a likely candidate. As for Brexit altogether, it seems Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is equally, loyally clueless. I’m sure Tim Farron can’t believe his luck. So therein lies the statecraft of TV debate-dodging: far more calculated an affair than mere cowardice. If May pulls off such aversion, this is nothing less than a blessing for both her and Corbyn. Heaven forbid they expose each other’s pie-in-the-sky politics and give way to any centre ground – let alone give it a platform.