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.
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.
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.