Emptychairing Cameron? Ed Miliband missed a trick

If Cameron’s best notion of proving himself true blue is to mix his yellow streak with those sincere concerns for the excluded Greens, that is his right

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The Independent Online

Ten months before the annual announcement in November, this may strike you as a little previous. Nonetheless, allow me to make an early nomination for the successor to “vape”, “selfie” and “omnishambles” as the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year. The suggestion for 2015, with definition attached, is as follows. “Emptychair (v): to humiliate a cowardly incumbent by holding an election debate in his or her absence, but with the absentee represented by an empty chair (technically, plinth)”. With David Cameron having clearly decided to dodge any and all debates this spring, Ed Miliband missed a trick when questioned on the matter on BBC1 yesterday by Andrew Marr. “If there is an empty chair,” he said, “so be it.”

While the sentiment was fine, the linguistics were poor. When seeking to grab public attention and provoke a torrent of hashtag ridicule, a wearily familiar adjective-noun combo won’t cut it. You need a thrillingly American-sounding, if hideous, compound verb, so he should have said, “If they [the broadcasters] emptychair him, so be it.” So indeed they should. Admittedly, the most famous instance of political emptychairing benefited its intended victim. However, Clint Eastwood’s weird debate with an imaginary Obama at the 2012 Republican convention is hardly applicable to a UK general election.

If Cameron’s best notion of proving himself true blue is to mix his yellow streak with those sincere concerns for the excluded Greens, that is his right. And in his defence he can cite a beloved world leader of old as a precedent for avoiding the ordeal he suffered in 2010. After Richard Nixon’s sweaty top lip damaged him in 1960 against JFK, he, too, refused to debate again in 1968 and 1972. Perhaps Miliband might drum that reference home in the weeks ahead. He might also make the case that the 2010 trio instantly established election debates as too crucial a democratic tool to be prey to the tender sensibilities of nervous nellies such as Cameron: clearly we need a commission with the legal power to determine the timing, rules and attendance list of all debates.

Ed might even pack his metaphorical Magnum .44 on Wednesday, and adapt an earlier Eastwood speech at PMQs: “I know what he’s thinking. Does he want five candidates at the debate, or only four, or just the three, or none at all? Well, to tell you the truth, Mr Speaker, in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being as he’s liable to get emptychaired, he’s gotta ask himself one question: ‘Does he feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

It’s about time underused Ali was weaponised

On the faint chance that the emptychairing threat spooks the PM into reneging, the Labour leader is leaving nothing to chance. Little Ed is using Alastair Campbell to “sharpen up” his performance, the Mail on Sunday reports, with Ali taking the part of David Cameron in debate rehearsals. “No one gets under Cameron’s skin more than Alastair,” an unnamed source tells the paper, “who has been goading toffs all his life.”

This is excellent news. With little to divert him other than occasional jaunts to central Asian republics to advise Mr Tony Blair’s cuddlier friends on their public relations, it has been far too long since a scandalously underused Ali was weaponised. We wish him and Ed all the fantasy merriment in the world as they lovingly re-enact the West Wing episode “Debate Camp” in which Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) plays the Dubya-style Republican challenger to Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett. Such fun.

A bemused geriatric gives his carers the slip

I am outraged by the lack of human sympathy attending words tweeted by a bemused geriatric who gave his carers the slip. Rupert Murdoch’s latest show of derangement came in response to the horrors in Paris, with “maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognise and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible”.

Rather than indulge in close textual analysis of that quizzical “maybe”, or wonder how he envisages 1.6 billion people might be held to account for the crimes of a few, we advise his carers to hide the mobile properly. Failing that, they should place him under an employee’s tutelage before any future forays into geopolitical commentary.

Any possibility of seeming pitiably ignorant would be avoided if he studied under Louise Mensch. “The response to Charlie Hebdo,” she tweeted on Friday after burying herself in the usual deep research, “should be to reprint his work …”

Tories are playing a percentage game

When making a contentious political argument, timing is paramount. So a rousing hats off to the Tories on alighting on this as the ideal moment to propose legislation mandating that 40 per cent of the eligible electorate must vote in favour of a public sector strike before one can be called. At any time, this would be inspired. Now, with the country fixating on an election that will eventually produce a ruling party for which barely 20 per cent of the eligible electorate has voted – 35 per cent (if that) on a 60 per cent turnout (if that) – it’s little short of genius.

Why Big Brother decorum must be maintained

Disgrace visits Channel 5’s Celebrity Big Brother house with the summary expulsion of the former Baywatch actor Jeremy Jackson for drawing back the dressing gown of a fellow housemate, Chloe Goodman, following his regurgitation of undigested vodkas and coke in the lavatory. The personal involvement of the television network’s owner in this decision has not been confirmed, but we can make the inference. If there is one breach of etiquette up with which the puritan Richard Desmond will not put, it’s the exposure of a former Page 3 girl’s breast.

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