Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Who’s afraid of the big debate?

The leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties along with Ukip supremo Nigel Farage have written to the prime minister saying that it is ‘unacceptable’ for him not to take part in the pre- election television debates.

The debates were first staged in 2010 and, briefly, made Nick Clegg the UK’s most popular politician, Mr Cameron has refused to take part this time round on the grounds that following a ruling by OFCOM the Green Party will not be allowed to take part, despite polling ahead of the Lib Dems in the European elections.

In identical letters the three party leaders say that it would be a ‘major setback for our democratic processes if these debates were not repeated because of one politician’s unwillingness to participate.’

They go on to say that unacceptable for the ‘political self-interest of one party leader’, the prime minister is reputedly far from keen on the idea of debating immigration policy with Nigel Farage, ‘were to deny the public the opportunity to see their leaders debate in public.’

The letters end with a call for broadcasters to ‘press ahead’ with staging the debates and to ‘provide an empty podium’ should Mr Cameron have a ‘last minute change of heart’ about participating.

The BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4 have tabled plans for three televised debates the first of which would see David Cameron and Ed Milliband go head to head, in the second they would be joined by Nick Clegg and in the third Nigel Farage would make up a foursome. Confused? The audience probably will be.

Quoted on the corporation’s website BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith said that broadcasters would show a ‘huge amount of caution’ before going ahead with the debates without the prime minister taking part.

David Cameron’s conversion to supporting the Greens is frankly unconvincing; he is merely using an ill thought out judgement by OFCOM as an excuse not to participate. I never thought I’d write this sentence, but I’m inclined to agree with Norman Tebbit, if the PM carries on like this it is hard to draw any other conclusion that that he’s ‘frit.’

On the face of it he has no reason to be, of the three main party leaders he is the one most likely to handle the debates best. Clegg is too fatally compromised by five years of coalition; Ed Milliband’s awkwardness is near legendary, if he dusts down his ‘Dave’ persona Mr Cameron though could still connect with the audience.

There are, it must be said, some problems with the debates themselves, three is far too many, after the first debate most of the viewing public lose interest. If there has to be three then broadcasters could make things a lot clearer for everyone if they kept the same line-up throughout.

These though are distractions, that he is so unwilling to take part speaks volumes about David Cameron’s weakness as a leader and the failings of the political class in general.

The three main party leaders will, if they go ahead, have been comprehensively rehearsed by their aides, making a genuinely off the cuff remark or honest answer as rare as water on Mars. Instead we will be treated to the frigid lexis and faux outrage that for all it might excite the boys and girls in the Westminster bubble bores the public to tears.

Adding Nigel Farage and Natalie Bennett to the mix would mean including a variable for which the political establishment has no idea how to compensate. Both have a directness of approach that could turn the safe dolly-drop questions the other three party leaders have been practicing not answering for weeks into unplayable bouncers.

Undoubtedly the player with the most to lose would be Mr Cameron, unlike in 2010 he is there to defend the record of his government, not make blue sky promises about what he’ll do if we trust him with the keys to Downing Street. The definition he uses to prove the success of his government’s economic plans is so narrow it leaves the concerns of most of the people likely to be watching out in the cold.

What David Cameron if rightly ‘frit’ about is being challenged by Farage and Bennett on why a government that pledged to ‘make work pay’ has presided over a situation where working families are driven to use food banks. How the unnecessary panic he stoked up over immigration has handed a golden opportunity to Ukip allowing them to move into the political mainstream and, most of all, why he has done nothing to stop major corporations from dodging tax whilst public services are being cut to the bone.

All of the above are undoubtedly tricky questions; but having to answer them is the price of holding power. By trying to dodge doing so David Cameron is further reinforcing the feeling that politics has become a closed court with little interest in or respect for the feelings of ordinary citizens.

He should stop making excuses, man up and take part. If he doesn’t he risks, to adapt a phrase he coined during his salad days, appearing to be an analogue leader in what is starting at last to look like a multi-party world

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