“I’d like them to happen,” David Cameron said yesterday of TV election debates. But he is scarcely likely to say “I’d not like them to happen,” which is surely his view.
This is because a main question in any debate is how he fares against Ed Miliband. Voter expectations of the Labour leader have gone so far south – he lags behind the Prime Minister on most measures – that debate exposure could only send them north. The media loves a David thrashes Goliath story, and would declare Miliband the winner, or so many in Downing Street and CCHQ believe.
Fortunately for Cameron, the broadcasters have come up with a paltry concoction. First would come an ITV debate featuring Cameron, Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. Next, a BBC one without Farage, but with the three main party leaders. And finally, a Sky and Channel 4 event with Cameron and Miliband only.
This may suit the broadcasters, but it has pleased almost no-one else. The Greens are in familiar protest mode: if UKIP is included, they say, then why not them, too – since both parties have an MP? The SNP and Plaid Cymru are rumbling away. The Liberal Democrats are raging about being locked out of the debating equivalent of the F.A Cup final. George Galloway has joined the fray.
Only Miliband is happy, as well he might be. “I hope David Cameron is not going to put up false obstacles to these TV debates happening,” he said yesterday – correctly divining the consensus view of Number Ten. But as matters stand, the Prime Minister won’t have to put up any obstacles at all. He will simply sit back, put his feet up, and watch most of the smaller parties run for their lawyers.
As it happens, the sum of the evidence is that most TV election debates make little difference to anything much. Consider the evidence last time round. In 2005, the Liberal Democrats returned 62 MPs to Westminster. In 2010 came the Nick Clegg election debates rave-orama. Cue a stratospheric LibDem poll post. But when the smoke cleared, Clegg’s party was left with…57 MPs.
None the less, the razzmatazz coverage of the debates obscured much of the campaign itself. This is one of the reasons why this site opposed them at the time. Cameron was right to pick this point up yesterday, saying that “they took all the life out of the rest of the campaign”. He deftly went on to make the case for the inclusion of the poor old Greens.
My view is unchanged. Any debates should happen before the campaign rather than during it – most of them, anyway. Their main feature should be the two potential Prime Ministers going head-to-head. Given the range of issues at stake, no fewer than three Cameron-Miliband encounters would be right. If Cameron can’t beat his dismal rival on these terms, he doesn’t deserve to return to Number Ten.
This simple solution would be acceptable neither to the minor parties nor the broadcasters. So be it – in which case, a single debate should be tacked on featuring Cameron and the seven dwarves: Miliband, Clegg, Farage, Lucas, Salmond’s successor, Wood and Galloway, plus Happy, Dopey, Grumpy and whoever else wants to join the circus. Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go – or don’t, in this case.