The stage isn't set for TV debates

Electoral excitement doesn't depend on a televised head-to-head, but David Cameron's coyness lets down voters

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Even by the robust standards of Alastair Campbell, a charge of “moral cowardice” against the Prime Minister is a serious one. He has a point. David Cameron has thrown any and every kind of flak into the discussions about the party leader television debates so as to confuse and confound the broadcasters. They were – almost – clever enough to keep up with his dodges, but in the end if the PM won’t show, then there won’t be a debate.

It is, though, hardly shocking, and Mr Campbell’s outrage may be a touch synthetic. It has always been the case that the front-runner in any political contest has the most to lose, and therefore the one who tries to find some face-saving reason to avoid television debates. Mr Cameron’s new-found tenderness towards the Green Party was a blatant ploy to complicate an already tortuous process, with a side bet that, should the debates ever come off, the leader of the Greens might score well against Ed Miliband and take red-green votes from Labour (though this was before Natalie Bennett’s infamous “brain fade”).

Yet back in 1997, when Mr Campbell was Tony Blair’s man in the negotiations, it was Mr Blair looking for excuses. The Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, was used as the decoy duck in that ruse, when John Major, a man with nothing to lose, tried to challenge Mr Blair to a television confrontation. Mr Blair avoided William Hague, too. Further back it was Margaret Thatcher who shied away from facing then Labour premier James Callaghan. Though his personal poll ratings were superior to the then relatively unknown Thatcher’s, her party enjoyed a substantial poll lead.

Ducking a political fight you might lose is hardly a crime, moral or otherwise. We have a parliamentary system, and these presidential-style debates tend to personalise politics; and we found in 2010 how distorting an effect they can have on a campaign. As to their value as a method of judging how to vote we ought to consider the phenomenon of “Cleggmania”. The runaway winner in the early debates went on to be something of a political disappointment; the debates gave the voter little inkling of that.

Still, it is a pity that the debates will almost certainly not proceed, because they did offer an opportunity to enliven politics. The “Health vs Wealth” argument is already a pretty stale affair. The television debates promised at least the possibility of the unexpected. Even the bizarre concept of seven or eight leaders standing around podiums did at least have the merit of allowing them all to start their hung parliament horse-trading in front of the whole nation.

The broadcasters’ rumoured determination to “empty-chair” Mr Cameron is also an empty threat – to inflict some extraordinarily dull viewing on the country, such as a 90-minute exploration of Mr Miliband. Even in HD that wouldn’t be very compelling.

Which is not to say that the broadcasters – and print and digital media – won’t be able to confect some other entertainments. In this election we will enjoy some “originals” on the stage – Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and a reborn John Prescott. We have the prospect of an extraordinarily dramatic election night, the most dramatic since 1997, with many a famous face losing their seats and scores of “safe” seats swinging another way. The election may not be gripping the public imagination at the moment, but there is plenty of excitement to come, even with Mr Cameron cowering in his bunker.