Forget the television debates, shove them all in the big brother house for six weeks.
5 Mar 2015 at 11:48
So, the big story of the moment is the debate about the debate about the debate. The usual suspects, Prescott and Campbell, predictably are accusing Cameron of being cowardly for not agreeing to a head to head with Miliband and just offering one debate with seven party leaders with the possibility of the DUP joining the throng. Although quite what that lot will bring to the table, apart from a fire and brimstone God is a welcome mystery.
The trouble is that this is all about tactics. Every Parliamentary candidate gets a few cheap headlines once a year demanding a debate with the sitting MP. The incumbent always refuses simply because they don’t want to give their opponents free publicity. I am guilty of both practices. But whatever Cameron decides he will be criticised. Obviously as Leader of the opposition he wanted a debate with Brown because Gordon is an appalling television performer. But where things went awry was when Clegg did unexpectedly well and the country became gripped with Cleggomania. This unnerved certain sections of the Conservative party who thought Cameron had made a terrible error of judgement and have been doing their best to persuade him to abandon any television debate at this election. This is not an option. The genie has been let out of the bottle.
In 2010 the options were clear cut. A swing to one party or another would pretty much decide the election. This is not the case now. There will be tactical voting. The Blair haters have moved back to Labour from the Lib Dems, the real left wingers have moved over to the Greens, and the rump of the Rampton wing of the Tories are toying with the KIPPERS. Couple this with a real possibility of Labour being wiped off the map by the SNP and the DUP cleaning up in Ulster and you have two terrifying prospects. A Labour government propped up by the SNP and the Greens (more likely just a Green) or a Conservative government propped up by the DUP and a couple of KIPPERS. The SNP would demand another referendum which they would get and a commitment to abandon nuclear weapons to which they would be promised a review. And the DUP would probably want some form of moral code based on Leviticus. I don’t see why either of those parties should have a platform in a national debate as they look at issues though the prism of parochialism. So that would leave Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Farage and Natalie Bennett which is a bit more manageable.
There are a number of other difficulties. Party managers like to control the news media. The unexpected, unexpected, which is often thrown up in television debates, completely messes up carefully controlled messages and mood music. Also, prepping leaders for them is time consuming. Precious hours which could be more usefully spent traipsing round the regions and bribing the locals with jobs and investment.
So what is going to happen? Firstly, some hapless reporter from the MIRROR will be forced to follow Cameron round in a chicken suit to be countered by some ambitious Tory researcher dressed as a fox. There will be no empty chair debate. It’s far too risky for the broadcasters not to have the Prime Minister and if they did they the BBC would probably be in breach of its charter and the others would fall foul of OFCOM.
If I was running communications for Cameron I would compromise with a cynical political twist. I would want two debates on consecutive days well before the main election starts so that any potential mispeak would fade before polling day. The first would be the five leaders. The second Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. That would be fair to Clegg and would outgun Miliband as the collective successes of both coalition partners could be paraded. Miliband could hardly refuse and Cameron would not have the smell of being afraid to debate with Ed, which, of course, is a view which is utterly bonkers.
The other alternative is to shove them all in the Big Brother House for six weeks with Perez Hilton and an assortment of dead beat actors just out of rehab. I suspect that this is not on the cards. But it would be great telly.