When times are lean, you grasp whatever morsel you can get your hands on. This explains why the Opposition are grabbing at the Prime Minister’s rejection of leaders’ debates – they’ve little other sustenance available.
Supposedly May’s stance reveals that she is weak and frightened of Jeremy Corbyn. To hear some talk about it, you’d think she is abolishing a central and valued tradition of British democracy.
That’s a fantasy. We’ve only had these debates twice, in 2010 and 2015. There’s nothing traditional about them – if anything, the great British election tradition was for one party to demand a debate and the other to reject the idea out of hand.
They make good copy for those of us who write about politics, and they can produce some memorable moments (Ed Miliband declaring “Hell yeah I’m tough enough”, then tripping off the stage, for example). But the purpose of election campaigns isn’t to fill column inches or generate memes, it’s for the people to choose their representatives, and in doing so to choose the Government. I’m not convinced an American presidential-style bonanza really advances that cause.
Leaders’ debates, like any other part of the election campaign, are just a tactic, not a prized jewel of our constitution. If it serves your campaign to want one, as Corbyn does, then you do. If it serves your campaign not to want one, as May does, then you don’t. For the broadcasters, it’s a chance to make headlines, win viewers and tout their own importance. That’s it – any grander claims are pure confection.
In refusing a debate, May is in a stronger position than Cameron when he tried to do the same in 2015. He had demanded and got debates in 2010, making his refusal a u-turn. And in trying to avoid charges of hypocrisy, he made out that his objection was practical not a rejection in principle – once he was discussing how to do them, he had conceded whether to do them.
Corbyn’s position, by contrast, is weaker than Miliband’s. Miliband was ahead in the polls, whereas Corbyn is so distantly behind that he can’t even bring himself to say he will win. And while Labour MPs actively wanted Ed on TV, believing he might win, few really want to see Corbyn appear anywhere near their election campaigns at all. That reduces the Parliamentary pressure for debates.
Still, we might yet see some kind of vaguely debate-ish compromise emerge. Think back to 2015, or to the EU referendum, and there were all sorts of different formats touted – head to head for two, three, four, five or seven leaders; a Big Two head to head and a Children’s Table debate of smaller parties; back to back interviews; back to back Question Times with audience questions; head to head Question Times; and so on, and so on.
It’a very unlikely May will ever agree to a head to head with Corbyn. Why even do him the favour of making him appear an equal contender?
There’s a very outside possibility that, if the broadcasters really keep pushing, she might agree to something less – a one hour grilling with Andrew Neil, say, followed by Corbyn and Farron facing the same on different nights. But then, that wouldn’t be a debate.