So now we know the full schedule of debates (and non-debates) for the referendum.
There’ll be separate Question Time-style BBC shows – one with Michael Gove, followed by one with David Cameron. The two men will take part in a similar exercise on Sky News.
There’ll also be an ITV programme on which Cameron and Nigel Farage will face an audience – again, separately. (ConservativeHome has already covered the controversy surrounding ITV’s refusal to involve Vote Leave, the official campaign, in this event.)
Finally, there’ll be a BBC debate at Wembley two days before the referendum. We don’t yet know the speakers taking part, but Downing Street says Cameron will not be one of them.
In short, the Prime Minister will not go head to head with any anti-EU speaker during the referendum campaign – and he is evidently particularly keen to avoid taking on Boris Johnson or Michael Gove, the likely debate candidates from Vote Leave.
Why? The official line is that he wants to avoid “blue on blue” clashes between Conservatives. But the conduct of the rest of the campaign hardly bears this out. So far, the Chancellor has called eurosceptic colleagues “economically illiterate”, Major has accused Tory Leavers of being “dangerous” and Samantha Cameron has apparently attacked Gove for “betrayal” – all with the tacit consent of the Prime Minister.
On this site last week, Steve Baker expressed concern that some in the Government are involved in propagating “intolerable media smears” against leading Tory Leave figures and their families.
Those actions hardly back up a narrative that the Prime Minister is strictly opposed to “blue on blue” battles in this campaign.
The fact is that the Conservative Party is home to different opinions on this issue – as is the rest of the country. That’s one of the reasons why we’re having a referendum, so that people can honestly and openly disagree, put their arguments to the people and have them decide. Everyone knows that, and it would be absurd to try to pretend otherwise.
A proper debate between the country’s most prominent Remainer and one of the most prominent Leavers would aid in that process – doing so in a reasonable way would show that while Conservatives disagree on the issue, our Party is capable of dealing with such disagreements maturely.
The official excuse doesn’t really hold water. Rather, refusing to take part in such an event suggests that Cameron knows he might lose, or at the least lose ground, by doing so.
If he really is insistent on not going toe to toe with a Conservative Leaver – be it for his rather thin stated reason or a more plausible unstated reason – there is an alternative. Short of a Cameron versus Boris debate, the Prime Minister should delegate the duel to his second.
George Osborne should take up the challenge. Bring on an Osborne versus Johnson debate.