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┬áchannels 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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