5 Mar 2015

TV debates – the end game

David Cameron didn’t want debates to happen at all if possible but was determined they would not happen in the same form as 2010. His top team saw only disadvantage in allowing the challenger, Ed Miliband, an opportunity to gain unfiltered access to the British public.


I’ve heard many Tories say they felt the Labour leader’s ratings could only go up. Professor Philip Cowley told Channel 4 News earlier this year that the Labour leader would only have to walk on the stage and not soil himself to exceed voters’ expectations.

Mr Cameron and his team have played games ever since this process began: high-end chess mixed with Rollerball. Ask for more parties to be in the debates and then when the broadcasters throw in even more parties say it’s chaos. Then complain they’ve missed out another party. The special pleading for the DUP to be considered for the debates is particularly cunning.

Read more: Cameron says no TV debates without Greens

It flatters a potential minority government prop – the DUP have been clear they wouldn’t go into a coalition but are up for looking at any deals on offer. But a senior Northern Ireland broadcasting source told me DUP involvement would mean the debate could not actually be broadcast in Northern Ireland because the other Northern Ireland parties were not represented. The tactic has been to keep trying to paint the whole process as chaotic while quietly trying to make sure it was as chaotic as possible.

No. 10 would say this was a mess of the broadcasters’ making. The TV channels should’ve heeded David Cameron’s warning that he didn’t believe debates in the short election campaign in April were a good idea. But the broadcasters felt the clue to “election debates'” timing was in the title. And while the Tories’ leadership has a free hand to announce manifesto ideas whenever it likes, Labour is tethered by party rules to pass the document under the noses of the party’s executive just as the election campaign starts and argued it would be unfair to discuss policy when theirs wasn’t finalised.

Labour hoped there would be a big head of steam demanding the debates in something like the same shape as in 2010. But the newspapers who so often still shape moments of political pressure are conflicted on this one. They were staggered at how the debates in 2010 diminished their own role and influence. They were not hostile this time round – they, like others, struggle to think how the politicians will fill a six week campaign without debates. But neither were they full-throated in support of the broadcasters’ (mutating) plans. Tory High Command will hope they will now have a bigger role in the election campaign given that the bulk of the papers with big readerships look like backing David Cameron.

One of the broadcasters is saying they will “hold firm.” We shall see. Do they risk looking like they stopped a chance to see the PM amidst the other party leaders, albeit not in the format or at the time they wanted. There are examples – Norway, for instance – of countries where the seven or so party leaders line up but the top two, the candidates for the premiership, get extra time and focus. David Cameron will be hoping that if the debate goes ahead he can stand at one end waving his arm dismissively down the row and saying do you want me and clarity or that lot and chaos.

Alastair Campbell, who would’ve been prepping Ed Miliband for the debates, just told Radio 4’s Today Programme that Ed Miliband probably would sign up to the Cameron offer of one debate of seven (possibly eight) leaders in the week before parliament is dissolved. The danger for Labour is that there is now a massive hole in their strategy for the election. Ask their strategists how they break out from the low 30’s poll position and get voters to look at Ed Miliband differently and they consistently cited the debates as the key to it all. Ask about Plan B and they sometimes look a bit distracted and talk about profiles that will appear on the TV. Abandoning consistency and deploying ruthless determination and guile, David Cameron has got his way or something close to it. Some will think that could be an omen for the election itself.

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20 reader comments

  1. sara says:

    My sister (a floating voter along with her husband, a banker) went to see Ed Milliband on Monday In Hove. Before she went she was deeply unimpressed with him, she came out totally impressed and will be voting Labour. This is quite common.

    And I think the general public would expect a leader on any Party to do more than “not soil his pants”. Those sort of comments say more about the speaker than the object they are discussing.

    I would suspect that any political strategy is flexible so account for a number of permutation – it wouldn’t be a strategy otherwise – by their nature strategies are flexible, are they not?

    I’m also not sure on the role of the newspapers per se in this election – barely read and usually disbelieved by the general public.

    What’s disappointing though in this article is that David Cameron seems to be let off the hook – even his stock response about chaos (which ibid may says more about his inner state of mind than the object of his derision).

  2. Jess The Dog says:

    This overlooks the diminished significance of newspapers. People are not going to be swayed as they were years ago. The Scottish Independence referendum had no newspaper support for Yes other than the Sunday Herald, but still only managed a 55%-45% majority.

    It’ll probably backfire for Cameron as the least he can get away with is the sort of debate we saw in 2010 and there is no conceivable excuse for ducking this. It would be seen as not the sort of behaviour suited to a PM and modestly boost Miliband’s lacklustre ratings… at least by default as Cameron slips down to Milibandesque levels of mediocrity.

  3. Philip Edwards says:


    It’s a none subject.

    If Clem Atlee had been subject to this personality garbage he would never have been elected leader of the local Pub Watch. Yet the man turned out to be the most courageous and radical Labour leader of all time.

    I couldn’t care less about televised “debates” or what some bought-and-paid-for academic moron says about them. What matters are policies, what they contain and what affect they will have on our society.

    Cameron and his gang are merely the latest public school profiteering milk sops, Miliband and Co have no guts, and the Cleggies are a mere hangers on.

    Now…..about the quarter of our population living in poverty…..and the millions out of work…..and far right monopoly ownership and propaganda from mainstream media….and the ongoing transnational bankers fraud (aka capitalism)……and NATO warmongering in Ukraine….

  4. Philip says:

    politically very clever – but it’s a gamble if the electorate decide – after all the boasting that will go on from the Tories during the election campaign – that Cameron isn’t prepared to go on TV and defend them…they may well decide that he’s frit
    And – despite wrapping it up in political speak – that’s what he is – frit!

  5. Alan says:

    Given the geographic/social profiling of electioneering, it matters not. The media continues to push the importance of such events as though affiliated to those wishing to degrade themselves.

  6. H Statton says:

    In tow I have to confess the actions of number 10 do seem a little gutless. Adopting a bullish attitude toward the televisions organisers; it seems to be ‘you do it our way, or we’re not playing ball’. They are acting like the big kids in the playground. The Tories have to grow up quickly but drop their draconian values.

    The Conservatives has been playing political chess and timewasting hoping maybe to not have a televised debate at all. No one is going to take part beyond a certain point in time as they will have far more pressing things to deal with. And if it is deemed to close to the election the televisiondebate wiill not simply happen.

    Other parties, with increased support such as the Green Party SNP, and UKip, would it be only reasonable to invite these parties? The Lib Dems are part of the coalition, so it seem only natural they should be allowed to appear, having been part of the decision making process of the current government (despite numbers of waning supporters).

    It sounds like desperation. We are ready, Blues and Reds, the two horse race just like in the good old days in the US. A two horse race, when there is a possibility that the result may not turn out as cleanly as one thinks.

    Let’s just hope there’s not a bacon sandwich, a pint, or a cigarette in tow.

    Out of interest i.e. the #drugslive @channel4 study. I bet a high proportion of those in government have had the old toke.

  7. oliver s says:

    Staggering at the amount of airtime already given to this clearly vacuous topic. News media make their own story again. I’m somewhat with Philip Edwards on this. An ever greater drift towards American Presidential style elections is horrendous.

    There was a comment on PM on Radio 4 this evening in which it was said that the actual manifestos were subsumed by the debates in 2010.I think this is true. I think Cameron is correct to suggest that the debates take place this month – it should obviously be after the Budget and then hopefully the manifestos can be properly chewed in April .

    Somehow Clegg became a hero and is now reviled. Is that what Milliband is hoping for?

  8. Megawhite illegal teeth whitening says:

    Cameron would rather that it is continually diluted to prevent a proper discussion from taking place.

  9. Tim says:

    The terms of the election debates, including the timing, number of debates and participants, should not be dictated by one party. It is for the broadcasters to consult and set the terms of the debates impartially. If at this stage (after consultation) the broadcasters change their proposals at the behest of one party this is completely undemocratic. The BBC will not be serving the license fee payers or voters if they in any way alter these proposals. If on the other hand one party or leader decides they don’t want to participate and they want to exclude themselves then it is not the broadcasters who are being biased by not providing the opportunity for all opinions to be heard. The leader should be empty chaired. If the broadcasters do not continue with the originally proposed format then they are betraying the voters and the voters will not forgive them for it!

  10. Andrew Dundas says:

    It’s impressive!
    David Cameron actually learnt from the 2010 debates with the other two political leaders! He learnt that the incumbent is at a profound disadvantage, and will be bullied by the others. The others can make their ‘case’ by attacking the incumbent’s record – just as Dave and Nick did for Gordon Brown.
    Negative campaigning is so much more real and effective than presenting their own policies for scrutiny. No one challenged Nick & Dave effectively in 2010 because it was always “I say this” and “You say that” about what might happen in the future – which nobody knows.
    This time, David Cameron doesn’t want his government’s record to be critically examined. He doesn’t want to admit that it wasn’t necessary to reduce the deficit in five years, as he insisted in 2010 was absolutely necessary. That moderating the deficit reduction was a sound and workable solution to the ‘Wall Street crash’. That he had no idea then about how to control our Banks’ reckless lending. And still doesn’t.
    Nor does he want to admit that – because of his tax cuts – the rich have got a lot richer and the poor, a lot poorer. He doesn’t want to face that scrutiny until the very last moment, and after the postal votes have been cast. Ideally framed in a diluted form with the leaders of six other parties to confuse the viewers.
    Clever guy is Dave. He’s learnt from his experiences last time. He doesn’t want to be bullied like Gordon was.

  11. Peter Cox says:

    Are we really so thick that we need to follow the USA and vote for TV stars. TV debates are totally useless and dangerous. Look how many people voted for Clegg last time, because he came across as visually pleasing. Maybe TV coverage should be banned for 4 weeks before the Election and make these guys go out on the Hustings to work hard for our votes.

  12. Martin Snell says:

    I think that the idea that the influence of the mainstream press is somehow diminished in their ability to affect the outcome of the election (or to colour the judgment of the electorate about the party leaders) is, unfortunately, mistaken.
    The steady drip-drip-drip of anti Miliband propaganda has been a corrosive element to his incumbency that has kept his popularity ratings at a record low level.
    Starting on the day after his election as leader (does anyone else remember the ‘Red Ed’ headlines that adorned most of the popular press?), there has been a constant onslaught of negative (and often untruthful) press for the Labour leader produced by the media with the sole intention of undermining his image.
    The broadcast media MUST remember that their greatest responsibility is to the British Public and stand firm.
    If they cave it will be a far greater betrayal of the principles of independence and free speech than anything Leveson could ever have done.

  13. Mark cunningham says:

    this is utterly scandalous. broadcasters must hold their nerve and empty chair the PM if necessary
    1. tories refer to blair in 1997. that was 20 years ago.before debate era. besides why are they using election from 20 years ago when there was no precedent?
    2. cameron himself demanded accountability 5 years ago. gave compelling reasons why brown had to debate.
    3. he wanted head to head, he got it. he wanted greens, He got them. all his conditions met & then he demands more
    4. He wants debate before campaign starts proper. before tory manifesto published. scandalous
    5. PMQs. there is no compulsion to answer ‘questions’. merely a prompt for a partisan put down. that is not debate! it is risible!
    6. last election- despite low opinion of politicians then in aftermath expenses scandal the debates did still get high viewing figures
    7. why should politicians determine how they are selected? do the rest of us determine format of our job interviews? do we determine qiestions we can choose to answer?
    8. this cavalier attitude reflects the growing mood of dissolution of the uk. I suggest if it is unchecked the separatists are following the only rational course of action..

  14. H Statton says:

    I think the debate should go ahead, wherever Cameron is present or not. Smaller parties haven nothing to lose, and it looks more as if Cameron is a weaker player when under such close quartered scrutiny.

    The event won’t have any bacon sandwiches of Farage’s famous pint and cigars, but it would be nice to see just how the faces of the parties dealing with the filing of divorce of the Lib-Dem from the Tory’s burden. Awkward political alliances that played together the best they could without giving too many party secrets away; this no is time that who files for divorce first.

    I hope this television debate goes ahead with Cameron present or not. Just because is the leader of the country he must not forget that his privileged position is down to the proletariat.

    If only a few people witness this small gladiatorial arena, because it clashes with another television programme. But if it does go ahead, the notable absence of Cameron will travel like wild fire. “Our PM didn’t show up to an open debate?!”

    What will people make of that?

  15. Peter Cox says:

    I stand by my previous comment. TV debates are not real debates in any form whatsoever. Just a means for the various Party PR managers to see who can fool the public the most. Totally artificial in all respects. Ed’s proposed law for TV debates has done him more damage than good, his PR should be shot and Harman’s comments are absurd considering she was the one to advise Blair not to do Debates. In a General Election the people who determine the result are those who vote for a PM rather than a Party. At the moment Cameron wins this hands down. On top of this, pollsters know that some people do not like to openly admit they vote Conservative, which is why their actual vote usually rises slightly at a General Election. With things as they stand, I believe the Conservatives will win enough seats to form a minority Government and as with Wilson they will eventually be forced (still possible) to hold another early GE, in which as per Wilson, they will win a majority.

  16. Mudplugger says:

    There is a simple answer which would remove all the selfish arguments and, furthermore, increase public engagement in the process. It’s “Strictly Politics”.

    Start with a ‘debate’ featuring every single party leader, including Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Galloway for Respect, the Monster Raving Loonies, etc. Each one would be given 5 minutes to make a pitch. An immediate viewer phone-in vote afterwards would decide which 2 would be eliminated.

    Two days later, hold another ‘debate’ with the remaining leaders, this time given 7 minutes each. Another phone-in vote, another 2 eliminated.

    Continue this process until only 2 leaders remain, who would then have an hour-long, one-on-one debate. That may be Tory & Labour, it may be Green & UKIP, but it would at least represent some public opinion.

    Money raised from the phone-in votes could then go to ‘Red Nose Day’, reflecting the efforts of just another bunch of comedians.

  17. lggmj says:

    In defense of the broadcasters, it’s important to allow other parties which have been voted for and have support to put forward their views, stances and policies to the nation and voters in the upcoming elections, even more so on TV than the bigger main parties because they will have less easy funding, but the debate organizers have the privilege of choosing which parties will be invited to take part. The broadcasters are running the programs and spending the money, watching TV debates up to an election is not a democratic right, merely something we have come to expect, so the broadcasters can run this however they like and if that means leaving an empty chair for David Cameron then they may do so.

    However, David Cameron has not shown interest in equality of representation of political parties or in the promotion of smaller parties until this particular issue, and it is difficult to avoid coming to the conclusion that he is trying to avoid a repeat of last election’s TV debates : is this really fitting behaviour for a prime minister? Despite all this, I still think it is undemocratic and immoral of the broadcasters to threaten David Cameron with an empty chair if he chooses not to take part in the debates. If we for example take the BBC’s Royal Charter, one of the key principles is meant to be impartiality, whereas an empty chair and its connotations for David Cameron is hardly impartial.

    There are faults on both sides of this argument and both sides need to reflect on their actions and what they intend by a democracy.

    1. oliver s says:

      Excellent point but the broadcasters started the whole mess by artificially elevating UKIP at the expense of other parties with more existing MP’s. The European elections have a phenomenally low turn out and proportional representation. Their “right” to be in the TV debates is most questionable and the airtime they receive is totally disproportionate

      1. H Statton says:

        I agree – there has been a disproportionate amount of time spent ensuring UKIP remains in the thick of popular media.

        The trouble is with so many gaffes, ludicrous extrapolations, a subversive mind-set, and even mockumentaries, they have become pretty hard to ignore. They are in the news all of the time.

        And despite what other parties would consider setbacks, UKIP just weathers the storm, moves on, and somehow retains its sympathisers.

        A major faux pas by a party member usually results in them jumping before they are pushed. UKIP then simply say well, we didn’t like them in the ranks anyway, or the person had other personal commitments. Despite the overwhelming stink of BS, the machine rolls on.

        Farage is a media bully, and a provocateur. Even when he is clearly in the wrong, his muscular, confident approach when being interviewed means he can twist a conversation around to suit himself. Politics is for him, the perfect stage. He doesn’t so much make speeches as give performances.

      2. Andrew Dundas says:

        Your eloquent observations apply equally well to Alec Salmond. And look what deceptions he’s pulled off!

        Media love controvetalists much more than truth. Headlines that catch viewers & listeners attention and promote readership & TV ratings. Messrs Farage & Salmond provide the juice, and get editors’ preference.

        Media is a business – like politics – that thrives on public attention for their incomes. Or am I too cynical?

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