In the game of poker that is the planning process for General Election TV debates, Cameron—the player with most to lose—is currently playing best. The broadcasters have played worst, totally fumbling their hand.
Cameron patently has the most to lose from taking part in the debates. Unlike Miliband and Clegg, he’s not all that unpopular as a leader. He has little to gain and much to lose from sharing a platform with Farage, and further legitimising UKIP’s candidacy.
Cameron’s demand for inclusion of the Green Party will not be met by the broadcasters. If it were, it would look like the participants had been chosen on Cameron’s recommendation alone—hardly a fair and impartial source—opening them to justifiable legal challenge from the other parties who want to take part.
So Cameron is faced with two possible outcomes: the broadcasters do not go ahead, in which case he comfortably sidesteps the problem; or—more likely in my view—the broadcasters go ahead and “empty chair” him.
In the latter case, all options remain open to Cameron. Changing his mind, if that’s the way the wind is blowing, is a one-day story at most. He could even duck the first debate, with Farage, on the grounds that he objects to UKIP’s inclusion without the Greens, take or leave the second (3-way) debate for much the same reason, and still face down Miliband in his preferred (and accepted) one-on-one format.
The debate including Farage will doubtless be a fiery occasion which will probably do damage on all fronts—but it’s likely to do more damage to those present than to an absent Cameron. Speeches criticising an absent leader don’t make for nearly such good TV as people yelling at each other. Clegg and Miliband’s commitments to “anyone, anytime” debates means that they can’t duck Farage; it might make sense for Cameron to let them demolish each other one-on-one in the second debate, too.
Cameron’s other advantage, which Miliband seems insistent on handing to him gift-wrapped, is that opponents are now calling for Cameron to debate in airtime they could be using to build a message or attack Cameron’s record. The media’s own obsession with the debates will likely trap them in this neutralised position until there is movement—which, clearly, Cameron will prefer to leave until the last moment. Cameron calculates—I guess accurately—that his apparent prevarication over taking part in TV debates damages him less than full-frontal attacks from his opponents.
The broadcasters bungled this process by announcing a plan rather than debates. The announcement of a plan implied room for negotiation and manoeuvre. Had they had the common sense to announce the invitees, the format, and the dates, making them fixed events to which leaders were invited, the landscape would now look very different—and I’d wager that all four leaders would be signed up.
The spanner in Cameron’s works could come from the “digital debate” proposed by The Guardian, The Telegraph and YouTube, and confirmed last week to include Cameron’s five preferred participants. Yet, despite being proposed a consortium which buys ink by the barrel, nobody seems to have noticed. If the two papers were to announce a date and invitation list on their front pages, along with assurance that they would “empty chair” those who didn’t turn up, all of those invited might find it difficult to graciously decline… and even more so if they could get a broadcaster to commit to covering (but, to ease the legal challenge, not producing) the event.
Unless the digital debate consortium make a move, it seems unlikely that anything will move in this story for a few weeks at least… but it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.