After an absence of more than 30 years, the word “frit” has come storming back into political vocabulary. And this localism, which Margaret Thatcher used to best Denis Healey in the Commons, when she challenged him with being “afraid? frightened? frit?” at the prospect of a general election, is every bit as potent as it was before.
In just the past week or so, we have heard it from the lips of politicians as ideologically remote from each other as the veteran Tory warrior Lord Tebbit and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband. They have revived it in one and the same context: David Cameron’s apparent reluctance to take part in televised election debates.
Their motives were quite different. Tebbit wanted to warn Cameron of how his apparent hesitation might be seen by the voting public, while Miliband had sensed a point of weakness and homed in on it during Prime Minister’s Questions. But they were both right in their judgement.
Refusing to debate could be fatal to David Cameron and his party on 7 May. In a close election, even the perception that he is being dragged unwillingly in front of the cameras would tell against him. “Frit” sums up everything that a political leader should not be – not just cowardly, but lacking the courage of his convictions.
It is hard to understand how this notably relaxed prime minister has got himself into this position. After all, public speaking and presentation have been integral to his success. His great advantage, even before he entered No 10, was that he always looked and sounded the part. His early years in public relations were not wasted.
Experts' predictions for the general election
Experts' predictions for the general election
1/10 Andrew Hawkins (ComRes)
Just as the polls in 2010 pointed to no overall majority for any party, the overwhelming evidence points to Labour either being the largest party or getting a small majority, probably below 20. The Lib Dems and SNP should each win between 25 and 35 seats, with single-figure wins for both Ukip and the Greens.
2/10 Joe Twyman (YouGov)
I predict it will be close. I predict a few tremors, though earthquakes are unlikely. I predict the eventual winner may not be the direct result of public opinion, but instead the outcome of political negotiations. It’s too early to predict numbers given all the uncertainties surrounding (among other things) Ukip, the SNP and the Lib Dems. It is possible that it will be close between Conservative and Labour in terms of both votes and seats. The Lib Dems might retain 20-30 seats and the balance of power, despite small gains for the SNP, and at most half a dozen Ukip seats. Gun to my head? Labour minority government.
3/10 Ben Page (Ipsos MORI)
A mug’s game for this election months away, but my predictions in order of likelihood: most likely a hung parliament or coalition of some kind, closely followed by either a small Labour majority or an equally small Conservative majority. Given how close the parties are, the unknown performance of Ukip in key marginals, the effect of incumbency on Lib Dem losses, the final size of SNP surge and so on, to be more precise is simply foolish! Professor Tetlock, who found that forecasts by experts were only slightly better than throwing dice, weighs heavily upon me!
4/10 Rick Nye (Populus)
I can see a hung parliament, where Labour is the largest party in terms of seats – though not necessarily in terms of votes, with the Lib Dems having 30 seats or fewer, the SNP having up to 20 seats and Ukip having no more than five seats. In short, it’s going to get messy and stay messy for some time to come.
5/10 Nick Moon (GfK)
I can’t recall there ever being an election more difficult to predict than this one. I’m confident no party will have an overall majority, with the Tories probably the largest party but no single partner for a viable coalition, with the Lib Dems on 25 seats, the SNP 20, Ukip three, and the Greens one.
6/10 Damian Lyons Lowe (Survation)
We might have expected a workable Labour majority, were it not for the wild-card rise of the SNP in Scotland. Survation’s December Scottish polls suggest an almost complete wipeout by the SNP in Scotland and result in 40+ seat gains – mostly at Labour’s expense. My current predictions are: Labour the largest party by 40-50 seats over the Tories, no overall majority; Tories 235-255 seats; Lib Dems 20-30 seats; SNP 30-40 seats – maybe held back from potential support level by opposition incumbency and tactical voting by pro-unionist voters. Finally, Ukip, 5-10 wins from Conservatives, including Rochester and Clacton, and potentially a single Labour-seat surprise.
7/10 Michelle Harrison (TNS)
The battleground over the next three months is at the kitchen table – the difference between what the statistics tell us about the economy, the experience that Britons are having of managing their household budgets, and where – and if – they believe politics can make a difference. In this regard, the disconnect with the major political parties is more interesting than the horse race.
8/10 James Endersby (Opinium Research)
Our first poll for 2015 shows Labour one point ahead [see above], but polls four months out from an election are snapshots, not predictions. It would be extremely unwise for a pollster to make a firm prediction now. At the moment, Opinium’s estimate on polling day would be the Tories slightly ahead on vote share, but Labour slightly ahead on seats. These numbers are based on a uniform swing, with tweaks to Green and Ukip numbers based on local information: Labour 320 seats, Conservatives 271, Lib Dems 20, SNP 16, Plaid Cymru three, Greens two, Ukip four. A hung parliament with Labour potentially closer to a majority coalition than the Conservatives.
9/10 Martin Boon (ICM)
I’ve not recovered from the Scottish referendum campaign yet, and here we go with another wildcard strewn nail-biter. For me, Labour on 30 per cent will only fractionally nudge past their woeful 2010 showing – behind the Tories on 33 per cent – but enough to secure more seats (290 for Labour, 280 for the Tories) on boundary wackiness. The Lib Dems will secure 14 per cent of the vote and 35 seats; Ukip will also get 14 per cent, but that only gets them a couple of seats. As for Scotland, I’m bewildered, but as you asked I’ll say 30 seats for the SNP, which wipes out a breathing-space victory in seats for Labour.
10/10 Lord Ashcroft (Lord Ashcroft Polls)
Declined to take part. His spokeswoman said: “As he has said many times, his polls are snapshots not predictions.” Health warning: when The Independent on Sunday carried out a similar exercise in April 2010, at the start of that year’s election campaign, eight out of eight pollsters predicted a Conservative overall majority.
So why is such a generally competent public performer skulking around, making excuses in the hope – so it seems – that the whole tedious thing will go away? More than a year ago, Downing Street seemed to be casting doubt on whether the 2010 experiment in televised debates would be repeated. Now we have the suggestion – threat even – that Cameron will not take part either at all or unless the Green Party is invited. This is a political misjudgement of the first order and traps him in the worst of almost every possible world.
Cameron’s sudden enthusiasm for the Green Party looks like a manoeuvre, even if it is not. You can make a perfectly good case that the leaders of all parties with MPs in the House of Commons should take part in televised pre-election hustings. But what you then have is something akin to a protracted BBC Question Time. You do not have a debate. The broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, in rejecting Cameron’s request, seems to agree.
What the public rightly expects – even at what we keep being told is a time when the two-party system is breaking down – is a duel. As we saw five years ago, three is just about manageable, though the arguments become less clear-cut. More than that, though, and you might as well abandon the whole concept.
In one way, it is surprising how late the UK came to televised election debates. Given the adversarial nature of British politics generally, and the fact that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition face each other pretty much every week across the dispatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions, television debates would seem a logical extension. Against this, opponents of election debates might say that this weekly duel renders special election encounters superfluous. Others detest debates as circuses that, in their view, debase politics or, at the constitutional level, as a presidential-style deformation of our parliamentary system.
Such arguments are specious. The voters deserve to see the most likely contenders for prime minister test their claims against one another directly, and in a disciplined contest with fair rules. Whether Cameron likes it or not, presenting a case to the widest possible public is an essential part of politics in the media age.
Why might Cameron be less keen on debating than he once was? He was clearly unhappy about losing the first debate last time around to Nick Clegg. Ukip’s arguments are, superficially at least, harder for the Conservatives to parry than for Labour. And Ed Miliband, as the Tory grandee Lord Patten warned recently, could turn out to be a strong debater. It would reflect poorly on Cameron if he were avoiding a debate for any of these reasons.
His difficulty is, however, that, even if his motives are altogether more principled, this is not how his reluctance will be understood. From deep inside an election campaign, television debates might look like a dispensable luxury. That is not how they look to the voting public. “Frit”, as Margaret Thatcher understood, is a devastatingly effective word.