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Sorry Dave — TV debates might be scary but so is being Prime Minister, so just get on with it

However wounding the encounters might be, Cameron will only make things worse if he tries to avoid them

Matthew Norman
Tuesday 14 October 2014 18:07 BST
The Prime Minister insisted he wanted the debates to happen, but he argued that it was unfair to include Nigel Farage at the expense of the Green Party
The Prime Minister insisted he wanted the debates to happen, but he argued that it was unfair to include Nigel Farage at the expense of the Green Party (Getty)

The last thing any responsible columnist would do is scaremonger about the mental faculties of a political leader. Being a singularly irresponsible one, let me observe that on the cognitive powers front, David Cameron gives cause for concern.

We can safely rule out the after-effects of a stroke (Winston Churchill kept his near-fatal one quiet, it’s true, but that was 60 years ago when secrets were more easily protected), or early-onset dementia. Cameron seems strikingly compos mentis, if only by the standards of his trade.

But before we come to the correct diagnosis, to the symptom. On the question of green issues (and ritual apologies for the technical psycho-terminology), the PM hasn’t a clue whether he’s Arthur or Martha.

Five years ago, he adopted the scintillating campaign slogan “Vote blue, go green”. Last November, he told advisers to excise all the “green crap” from energy legislation. And now, with another dainty pirouette, he completes the circle by declaring that any election TV debate that features the leader of Ukip should also feature a representative of the Green Party.

His supposed logic underlines the extent of his befuddlement. “The Greens have got an MP, Ukip have now got an MP,” he told ITV1’s The Agenda. “I can’t see how you can have one party in that has an MP in Parliament, and not another party.”

His failure to demand the inclusion of another party’s lone MP was either evidence of amnesia or a sign that he is less worried about facing Natalie Bennett or Caroline Lucas than Respect’s George Galloway, who may be the strongest debater in the English-speaking world today.

Which brings us to that diagnosis of what is scrambling the PM’s brains on the matter of green politics. Out of respect for his recent lurch to the right, it is taken from the late Mrs Thatcher in her occasional guise as Grantham’s Oliver Sacks. Cameron is frit.

One thing he evidently has not forgotten is his abysmal performance in the I-agree-with-Nick extravaganza of 2010, which doubtless explains the general fear. Specifically, he is terrified of debating with Nigel Farage.

He is wise to be afraid. Live TV debates are usually a nightmare for the incumbent, who must defend a record while the opposition remorselessly attacks it, and Farage’s nicely synthesised university-of-real-life appeal is ideally suited to the format.

In a one-off debate, he would hurt the PM and add at least a few points to Ukip’s polling figures. So it is natural for Cameron to recoil from the TV networks’ proposals for three eve-of-election debates – a mano-a-mano contest between him and Ed Miliband; a second with the pair joined by Nick Clegg; and a third with that trio supplemented by Farage.

Yet however natural his desire to hide from them, Cameron should be able to calculate that however wounding these encounters might be, trying to avoid them will be more so. Only a few minutes into the 2010 opener, the first of its kind in this country, election debates were established as an immovable cornerstone of our democracy.

That they had taken half a century longer to arrive here than in the US hints at the contempt for the electorate the British political class has always cultivated. But Cameron would be foolish to double down on that disdain by quibbling over the participants, or seeking to insulate himself against disaster in any way.

“Why have all the debates inside the election campaign,” he muses, “rather than spreading them out over a longer period?” Why? Because they are election debates, dummy, that’s why.

It is a nonsense that events as crucial to the outcome of a finely balanced election, with fractional movements in voting intentions likely to decide which party will lead a coalition government, are plagued by this uncertainty.

In a sensible country, neither the politicians nor the broadcasters would have a say. An independent commission along US lines would remove all the wiggle room and bluster about legal challenges. It would decide the formats, dates and qualifications – some kind of equation factoring in existing parliamentary presence and poll ratings – for taking part.

Stuck as we are with this confusion, however, it should be obvious to Cameron that all the power lies with the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky. All they need do – what they must do if it comes to it – is state the time and place, and insouciantly add that while the Prime Minister is most welcome to show up, the debates will go ahead with an empty podium in his stead if he finds himself otherwise engaged.

If that didn’t focus his mind on his duty to the democratic system – and even perhaps resolve his indecision about whether green issues are a load of crap or worthy of a voice in a TV debate – nothing would. This vision of a Prime Minister who is perfectly content to send military personnel into action sucking his thumb and calling for mummy at the prospect of 90 minutes with Farage is hugely distasteful. If he cannot grow a new pair himself, let it fall to the networks to perform the double gonadic reconstruction on his behalf.

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