The 2010 General Election was the first to provide us with live televised debating between what were, but no longer are, the main three political parties. Twenty-two million viewers tuned in to the debates and Cameron announced in the same month that “we will have them in the future” and that they are “good for democracy”.
It is therefore a little odd that Mr. Cameron is now refusing a head-to-head debate with Labour leader Ed Miliband and only agreeing to one of the two proposed 7-way debates, which really have only been able to develop as a result of the PM’s bemoaning at the Greens initial exclusion.
Cameron is clearly more fearful of these debates than he was this time five years ago, and rightly so. Firstly, he is now the incumbent, and the incumbent always has more to lose than gain.
Secondly, he is well aware of how useful these debates can be for smaller parties who are less known to the public. If not for Nick Clegg’s appearance in the 2010 debates, it is likely that Cameron would have spent the last five years governing with a majority.
Perhaps what is scaring Cameron the most is the unpredictability of this election, with votes more spread out than ever before. The current polls show Conservative and Labour to be neck and neck, both around 53 seats short of a majority. They also show that the combined support for the ‘three main’ political parties to be lower than ever at just 74%. These statistics suggest that there are plenty of alternative places for votes to go.
At the time of writing, broadcasters are discussing Mr. Cameron’s “final offer” and I imagine they will respond in the coming days. They have already stated that they are “committed” to ensuring the public is provided with debates however, as is the world of politics, promises are not always kept and the set-up of these hotly debated debates is still unclear.
One possibility is that the broadcasters will simply accept Downing Street’s offer. This would provide clear evidence of the government over-powering the media. Leaders of all other parties have heavily criticised Cameron’s decision, accusing the PM of arrogance and attempting to “dictate the terms of the debate”. If the PM’s wish is granted, he may have won himself the advantage of only needing to be faultless for 90 minutes rather than 270 but he would have to prepare for more of a grilling than already expected given the wishy-washy way in which he’s dealt with the debate proposals in recent months.
Another likely outcome of the current situation is that broadcasters will refuse Cameron’s offer and the original proposals to have three debates will go ahead, with the PM appearing in all of them. This depends on the broadcasters daring to hold their nerve. On one hand this outcome may make the Prime Minister look weak – he is not getting what he wants. On the other hand though it could work in Cameron’s favour. The public is being made to believe that he is frightened to debate, therefore taking pressure off him and heaping it onto his opponents currently attacking him. It could be that he is tactically lowering expectations on him so that he has more to gain and less to lose.
A final scenario could see the three debates take place and the Prime Minister only attending one of them. In a sense this might resemble Cameron’s strength not to be controlled by the broadcasters. However, more likely, it will make him look weak and stubborn.
Meanwhile Ed Miliband has already opened up to the idea of a head-to-head without the PM and a tough grilling from Jeremy Paxman instead. Clegg has also suggested he take Cameron’s place in a head-to-head. The most pressure is on the PM but hiding from the debates altogether would likely be suicidal.
It is difficult to predict how many parties would be able to come out of a seven-way debate stronger than they were going into it. But at least democracy will emerge the victor.