Yesterday at PMQs, Miliband gave Cameron a hard time about ducking the TV debates.
“I think the British public deserves it, and David Cameron should now name the date.”
In response, Craig Oliver, the Number 10 comms director, wrote a letter to Sue Inglish, Head of Political Programmes for the BBC. The closing of it goes:
“There should be one 90-minute debate between seven party leaders before the short campaign. As well as the prime minister, the leaders of the Green party, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, SNP and Ukip should invited. The leader of the DUP should be allowed to make his case for why he should be involved. If the broadcasters cannot agree amongst themselves who hosts the debate, lots should be drawn, though the debate should be freely available to whoever wants to broadcast it. In order for it to be organised in time, the debate should take place during the week beginning the 23rd March. I will make myself available to negotiate the details. Having been the editor of numerous broadcast news and current affairs programmes, I know this is ample time to organise a programme.
This is our final offer, and to be clear, given the fact this has been a deeply unsatisfactory process and we are within a month of the short campaign, the prime minister will not be participating in more than one debate.”
So David Cameron is willing to take part in one seven-person debate. If it’s held before March 23rd. And if the DUP get to be involved, making it an eight-person debate. Then the Prime Minister will show up. Maybe. We’ll see. Oh and by the way, this is our final offer.
Over the past couple of months, Cameron and his team have played the broadcasters into a corner. As opposed to sticking to their guns when the Tories pulled that “yes, but what about the Greens?” stunt, the broadcasters got all navel gazing about whether or not the Greens indeed should be allowed to participate. And from there it all rolled out of hand until we came to the seven/eight politician mash-up on the table now. The broadcasters should have just said that the 4-3-2 line-up they’d devised was sensible enough; they were going to go ahead with it, and if Cameron didn’t want to participate, they’d empty chair him. This is what I thought they’d do; had they done so, the debates would now be going ahead. But they let Cameron off the hook.
Even if the seven/eight politician clusterfuck did end up taking place, it would still be all good for Cameron; he would face no real scrutiny in such a format. Imagine it if you will:
FARAGE: I have one simply question for the Prime Minister: will he campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union or will he campaign for our country to leave it?
STURGEON: Can I just interject here with a question about the Barnett formula?
BENNETT: The Green Party plans to built 7 billion social homes, one for every human being on the planet, at a cost of 674 trillion pounds…no wait, 23.6 billion pounds….my apologies, 18 grand….
WOOD: (begins singing “Land of My Fathers” at head-crushing volume, drowning out further debate for the next three minutes)
The seven-man slam would be mayhem, utter chaos. Cameron could walk away from them with his head held high, able to have avoided any hard questions and better still, with a narrative established along the lines of: “Do you really want this rabble running the country? Vote Tory and save yourselves.”
But that’s all academic, because the debate won’t happen. The broadcasters aren’t going to chuck everything in and rearrange all of their plans for some ridiculous debate at short notice. So the question is: has all of this debate avoidance hurt David Cameron? This morning’s YouGov has the Tories tied with Labour, the fourth YouGov national poll to not have Labour in front. Like I say, I hate to admit it, but the Tories have got this one spot on.