Why on earth does David Cameron think televised debates are optional? His resistance is futile anyway

The Prime Minister's choice this week to launch a bid to weedle out of pre-election live debates in 2015 makes a handsome Christmas gift to Ed Miliband

Share

In the realm of unwitting but illuminating self-analysis, there has been little like it since Gerald Ratner.

If David Cameron’s crack at undermining market confidence in his brand (himself) was wordier and less honest than Ratner’s “crap”, his choice of this week to launch a bid to wheedle out of pre-election live debates in 2015 still made a handsome Christmas gift to market rival Ed Miliband. When, on Monday, the Prime Minister informed a parliamentary press lunch of his doubts about participating in any debates, or making them irrelevant by holding them months before the vote, he exposed more of himself than I suspect he realised.

What he must have anticipated is being attacked for running scared, hence the muffling of the retreat-sounding bugle with some weaselly rot about “having an open mind”. Let me try to close it for him, and as gently as possible. We must all try not to rile him until 0.07 seconds after the threat of Levesonian statutory control is lifted, so this is no time to take out the spray can and paint him a more vivid yellow than the shade which covered every inch of Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger.

Snivelling

To others may be left the charge of snivelling cowardice. Were I Mr Miliband, I would rise at noon today and begin PMQs with: “Mr Speaker, in the light of his hints about boycotting live TV debates in 2015, my question to the Prime Minister is this. Would that be a tiny pair of lacy panties he is wearing beneath his trousers?” If this struck the Labour leader as crudely sexist, a brutally Thatcherian “He’s frit, Mr Speaker, frit!” would do fine.

Frit he plainly is, and for obvious reasons. Currently, his guiding light on all things re-electoral is Barack Obama (hence his aping the Prez by supporting gay marriage), and 10 minutes into the opening debate with Mitt Romney, Mr Cameron will have been asking Sam where she last saw the anti-emetics. To an incumbent trapped in economic quicksand, the vision of Obama being dismantled by the supposedly robotic challenger who had previously flunked that visceral, can-you-picture-this-guy-in-charge test must have sickened him.

There are other reasons for the terror. Mr Miliband has grown as a set-piece debater, while so diffident and maladroit was Mr Cameron’s opening debate performance in 2010 that some residual post-traumatic stress is inevitable. Yet the cliché, if he’ll excuse the double equine reference, is that after a mare like that, you have to get back on the horse. He had no choice in 2010, and being a quick study improved steadily, until midway through the final debate he found the cod prime-ministerial gravitas that is his greatest asset. If he feels that he could not relocate it, and that Big Ed would taunt him into one of his crimson-cheeked eruptions, this tells us something about his self-confidence at the end of an almost unremittingly dreadful year.

Also revealing is the laughable hypocrisy of his rationale. “I’ve always believed in live debates,” he jauntily declared three years ago when a desperate Gordon Brown agreed to them. “I think it’s a step forward for our democracy... We’ve joined the 21st century... and I think that’s a very good thing.” Now he claims to think that they suck the life out of elections by keeping him from an adoring public on the streets. Ah, yes, hasn’t that been all the rage in recent elections? Nothing but minder-free, un-stage-managed, control-freakery-free, hearty cut and thrust with the punters from atop the John Major Memorial Soap Box.

Inept

Apparently his new election “mastermind”, Lynton Crosby, the cuddly Australian dog whistler, is adamantly against any debates. No doubt this partly explains the volte face, if not the cack-handedness with which he tried to disguise naked self-interest in the see-through cloak of old-fashioned purism). Yet this is one war that was lost before it was declared. All Clegg and Miliband would need do is agree to appear without him, and trust a mischievous network to threaten to replace him with a top hat, in the role played by the tub of lard when Roy Hattersley played hooky from Have I Got News For You.

As peculiarly inept a political miscalculation as this is, weirder still is the timing. It is depressing, if predictable, to find a PM with enough pressing national considerations to amuse him fixating on an election two and half years away, and bewildering that he is naive enough to admit it. At a point of extreme danger in his career, when he is increasingly regarded as weak, trivial, shallow, unprincipled and obsessed with short-term, survivalist tactical manoeuvring at the expense of long-term strategic thinking, the succinctness with which he underscored every point of attack was remarkable.

Whatever he may wish to believe, there will be three 90-minute debates shortly before the next election, because neither the press, nor broadcast and social media, nor the public with whom he is so touchingly keen to engage in the flesh will tolerate less. Having dug himself a nasty hole on Monday, he would be wise to husband his energies for more urgent matters than his own re-election, and cease digging forthwith.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower