David Cameron, to recap, has said that he will not take part in the TV leaders’ debates unless the Greens are invited to take part. His sudden empathy and respect for Natalie Bennett has arisen as the situation required it; he needed a way out and this seemed to be it. He has gambled on the notion that the print media in particular don’t want the debates to happen (having been supposedly crowded out of the election discussion by them last time round) and that no one else is that fussed.
Judging by the political media over the weekend, his gambit certainly doesn’t seem to be paying off just yet. Pundits had plenty to say on the matter. Some of it was so daft, I would like to take the time now to unpick some of it.
The idea that people are only interested in seeing Cameron v Miliband as they are the only two possible Prime Ministers: the whole reason that the broadcasters were eager to include UKIP is because Nigel Farage is the most watchable politician in Britain by a country mile. Having him involved would unquestionably help boost ratings. People who assert the Cameron v Miliband as the only possibility set up are hopelessly stuck in the past. Can you imagine how dull three debates between Cameron and Miliband would be? UKIP would just have to edit together the dullest bits (picture having that job) and there’s their political broadcast done for them.
The idea that having an empty chair instead of Cameron would mean less people would watch: this is a sub-set of the previous argument, only it’s even loopier. Imagine if the broadcasters set up the debates and told Cameron that he can either take part or not, but they are going ahead, with or without him. Think of the advertising the broadcasters could do in the run up: will he, won’t he? Will there be the Prime Minister at the centre of the debates – or an empty chair dancing with Farage? People love a cliff hanger; it’s what most of televisual entertainment is based on. But of course, this scenario is purely academic anyhow – if the broadcasters set up this situation, Cameron and the Tories would jump on board so fast it would be slightly embarrassing. Cameron and Crosby know that get to into a situation in which Cameron’s integrity and leadership is called into question that obviously and publicly could be deeply damaging.
And to stave off an argument on this point here and now: the broadcasters would simply need to invite Cameron to participate in order to stay within the rules. It’s like the PPBs: if a party doesn’t make use of the free time afforded to them on this, it’s not considered the broadcasters fault. Also, OfCom rules state that no one party should hold veto power over whether the debates happen or not, which is precisely what the Tories are attempting to do at present.
The TV debates debate seems at present to not only not be going away, but ramping up. We’re now in a game of chicken, with the political media and the Tories staring across a table, hoping the other side blinks first.