Grant Shapps, chairman of the Conservative Party, has hinted that Cameron may have to participate in the TV debates after all. Asked whether the prime minister would turn up if they happened, yes or no, Shapps gave an unequivocal answer: “It’s a yes.” I use the words “have to” as it’s the worst kept secret in Westminster how Cameron feels about doing the debates. It is fair to say, in a nod to understatement, he’s not particularly keen on the idea.
Nor should he be. I understand why the Tories don’t want to do the debates: it became accepted wisdom within the party that the reason the Conservatives failed to get a majority in 2010 was down to the debates and “Cleggmania” giving the Lib Dems enough seats to deny them outright victory. I don’t agree with them that this was the case, but the veracity of the claim isn’t what’s important – it’s the currency it has within the Tories nonetheless.
But if wriggling out of the debates was mostly about denying the Lib Dems a hope at redemption, then the currently offered format solves that problem. The “two sevens and a two” format screws the Lib Dems more than any other party. Instead of getting to stand side by side with the big two, Clegg will be in amongst the scrum. And make no mistake about it: the two seven-leader debates will be clusterfucks for the ages. Even Farage will struggle to be heard over the din, as Plaid and the SNP attempt to shriek their way to glory.
Then Cameron gets a one on one with Miliband, which he’s not that excited about doing either, for obvious reasons. The Tories, rightly, consider themselves ahead of the game and think Labour are in trouble. Why give Miliband any possibility to create a game changer? Yes, everyone bar the most die-hard Labour supporter will be expecting Ed to be worse than Cameron. But given that’s the expectation, Miliband just has to turn up and be okay to exceed expectations and very probably get a boost off of it.
I think Cameron should probably get over himself at this point. 7-7-2 is probably as good as it’s going to get from a Tory perspective, and he should bite on it while the broadcasters are so willing to experiment with such a mental concept as seven politicians on a stage together trying to shout one another down. He should have confidence that he can get the better of Miliband in a head to head situation.