Letter from the Whitehall Editor: Cameron is running scared from the “empty chair”


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The Independent Online

Don’t be fooled. Whatever he says, David Cameron is desperate to kibosh plans for a repeat of the live leaders TV debates in the run-up to the election. To many people that might seem odd, given that the Prime Minister is a polished TV performer and Ed Miliband is not.

But Tory aides fear the Labour leader will win the expectations game. Everyone will expect Mr Cameron to win – so if Mr Miliband does a bit better than expected then the commentariat will write the debates up as a win for him.

Not just that. Having watched  Mr Miliband take part in untelevised debates in the past I can confidently say that he comes across far  better than he does in TV clips or PMQs, where most people are accustomed to seeing him. The Tories fear voters will see Mr  Miliband and say, “he’s not as be as we thought” and vote Labour.

Mr Cameron thought when he demanded the inclusion of the Greens they were creating an insurmountable hurdle for the broadcasters. But yesterday’s announcement by the broadcasters that they would invite the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru put the Tories in an invidious position. And it is one that is made worse by their public pledge to “empty chair” any leader that doesn’t take part.

So what happens next? My guess is that the debates will now take place with or without Mr Cameron.

But that is by no means the consensus here in Westminster. My colleague Andrew Grice thinks that the Tories will throw up more objections and eventually force the broadcaster to buckle on their empty chair threat and no debates will take place.

One thing, however, is very clear: the debate over the debates has still got a long way to run.