David Cameron’s cold feet about televised leaders’ debates suggest a new respect for his Labour opposite number
They attracted big audiences. They were great for the voters. They enlivened the campaign. They had been a long time coming, but once they had happened there could be no turning back. That was the widely held view of the televised leaders’ debates during the 2010 general election. It was expressed with particular fervour by David Cameron. After the first debate, he declared: “I think we will have them in every election in the future and I think that it is a really good thing for our democracy.” This was the orthodoxy. Once the precedent of TV debates had been set, it was almost universally thought that they would become a permanent, almost constitutional fixture of our elections as they are in the United States. Future elections would be unthinkable without televised face-offs between the leaders.
Now, however, there is growing doubt about whether there will be TV debates at the next election, and the main reason is that the prime minister is getting cold feet. In a speech last week, he dwelt on what he didn’t like about the experience. While saying that he was still in favour of the principle of debates – he could hardly say otherwise without looking frit – he raised questions about their format and impact. One of this cricket-loving prime minister’s favoured phrases is “rolling the pitch”. He would not be expressing his reservations now – so far out from the next campaign – if he were not trying to prepare the ground for wriggling out of TV debates if he decides that they aren’t in his interests.
As they did last time, when the campaign was spearheaded by Sky News, the broadcasters will clamour for the politicians to agree to televised debates. Indeed, they have already started making approaches to the political parties.
The broadcasters can apply public pressure but they can’t make it happen without the co-operation of the politicians. Any leader can always find a way of sabotaging the negotiations by making demands they know won’t be agreed to if they are seriously determined to stop televised debates from happening. This is why they were stymied before 2010. They only happened last time because of an unusual set of circumstances that meant all the leaders thought debates would be to their advantage.
As the challenger, David Cameron, who saw himself as an accomplished communicator and was seen as such by most observers, pressed for debates. Nick Clegg leaped at a great opportunity for the Lib Dem leader to escape the “third party squeeze” and showcase himself. The principal reason that debates happened last time was Gordon Brown. By his own admission, Mr Brown was not a leader for the television age. Incumbents in Britain had previously thwarted TV debates because they didn’t want to concede equality of status to opponents. But Mr Brown’s position was so weak that he concluded he had little to lose and potentially a lot to gain by agreeing encounters with his two younger rivals. He saw an opportunity to project himself as the serious statesman and expose them as lightweights. It did not work out that way – he scored poorly in the post-debate polls – but that was his reasoning and that was why they happened.
Mr Cameron’s main complaint about last time’s debates was that they overwhelmed the campaign to the detriment of other aspects of the democratic process. About this, he makes a fair point. The 90-minute bouts, staged on three consecutive Thursdays, did suck the oxygen out of the rest of the election. Huge amounts of newsprint and many hours of airtime were consumed talking about the debates before they had happened and then analysing them afterwards. The 72 hours beforehand were dominated by the build-up. The 72 hours in the aftermath were devoted to post-mortems on the performances of the rival leaders. Then we were on to the build-up to the next debate.
Only the Lib Dems really persisted with the traditional early-morning news conference, where they, usually fruitlessly, tried to push their ideas and shape the news agenda. Labour and the Tories largely gave up on them. The debate intensified the media focus on the leaders, to the exclusion of their colleagues. There was vigorous to and fro between the leaders about policy but less of the forensic dissection that you can get when a skilled TV interviewer interrogates a politician. So I have some sympathy for this view that the concentration of three debates in three weeks meant they became too dominant. But I also strongly suspect this is not the only reason, and probably not even the principal reason, why Mr Cameron has become so wary. The Tories felt then, and still feel now, that the debates damaged their cause. By giving Nick Clegg an equal platform, they gifted him a big opportunity – remember “Cleggmania”? – to present himself as the real voice of change. This, many Tories feel, and probably rightly, cost them a parliamentary majority. The pressure-cooker atmosphere of the debates forced Mr Cameron to make pledges that he has later come to regret. It was during a heated exchange with Gordon Brown that the Tory leader felt compelled to make a blanket pledge to protect all the special concessions for pensioners, including winter fuel payments and free TV licences even for the most wealthy, which many Conservatives now think was a mistake.
I can also see why the prime minister’s spin doctors are worried. Their preference, a legacy of the years during which Andy Coulson was in charge of the Tory communications machine, is to present their man in a highly controlled, tightly packaged way. This is odd really, because Mr Cameron is usually very good on his feet dealing with the unexpected. Yet he has not done a No 10 news conference, where combative and unpredictable journalists can cause trouble, for some time.
An idea being floated by the Tories is that the debates should be spread out over a longer period. Members of Mr Cameron’s team tell me that he is envisaging just one debate during the official campaign period, which starts once the prime minister has been to see the Queen. Other debates would happen earlier. Ironically, this is exactly what Gordon Brown proposed last time around, only to be rebuffed by the broadcasters and the Tories. Stretching them out is more feasible now because we have a fixed-term parliament, which means everyone knows the likely date of the next election, but it would dilute the impact of the debates. Which is almost certainly why the Tories are suggesting it.
Conservative reluctance about repeating last time’s experience also tells us something about how they now regard Ed Miliband and what it tells us is quite complimentary about the Labour leader. Until recently, Tory strategists were saying they wanted the next election to be as presidential as possible. They were that confident that their gladiator would cream Mr Miliband in the TV arena. They still think that the Labour leader has serious vulnerabilities that they can attack, but they are obviously not so cocky as they once were. If they were, they’d be saying “bring on the debates, we can’t quite wait” rather than cold-shouldering broadcasters who have tried to engage them in preliminary discussions. Mr Miliband is not a flawless communicator but he is generally the equal of Mr Cameron when they clash in the Commons, and worsts the prime minister as often as Mr Cameron gets the better of him. The Labour leader is also comfortable in question-and-answer formats with the public, where he can be very engaging.
Labour has its own concerns about the debates. The big one, which could be a serious obstacle to agreement between the parties, is wariness about two against one. A senior member of Ed Miliband’s team says: “There is an issue for us if 66% of the time is going to be Cameron and Clegg defending the same record.” That apart, Labour is sounding enthusiastic, not least because it wants to present its leader as the man who can’t wait to get in the ring and Mr Cameron as the man who is trying to duck out. “We’re up for more,” says one Labour strategist. A powerful attraction of debates for Mr Miliband is that they will give him an opportunity to communicate directly to voters in a way unfiltered by a generally hostile press.
Will there be TV debates next time around? When I put the question to one of Mr Cameron’s circle, he responded: “Ask me in two years.” The honest answer is that each of the leaders will make a calculation whether it is in their best interests much closer to the time. As the incumbent, Mr Cameron will have to weigh up the perils of taking part against the risk of being seen to run away. If they do happen again, it will not be because the politicians think TV debates are good for democracy but because they think they will be good for them.