Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Six reasons why Cameron has hugely miscalculated on the TV debates

I sometimes wonder how politicians can manage to make terrible errors whilst thinking they are being oh so clever.

Gordon Brown's high wire manouvering in the Autumn of 2007 springs to mind as a classic example. He thought he had the opposition on the run and was privately and publicly toying (and allowing his acolytes to toy) with the idea of going to the country early. In the end he bottled it and it defined his premiership.

Cameron's short term tactics on the TV debates this time round are another example of this effect. He obviously thinks he's been extremely clever on this. It's pretty obvious that all the other parties who have been invited have played a relatively straight bat. They wanted debates and the broadcasters have tried to accommodate them all. They were invited to meetings to try and sort out the niggles and they attended them. The only party that has played games with the process are the Tories. But they thought that the "he said, she said" would blur things to the point where nobody would understand who had really scuppered this.

I believe Cameron and his team are profoundly wrong for six reasons:

1) He allowed his back-room spinners to brief journalists about what he was really up to, i.e. he never really wanted the debates in the first place. There are just too many people who have been spun this line and have reported it for it to be ignored.

2) Because he is the only one refusing to turn up it almost doesn't matter whose fault it is (although it is quite clearly his fault). Even if he was blameless and had somehow been stitched up it would still be a fatal mistake to appear to be the one trying to stymie democracy in this way.

3) He has underestimated the broadcasters. He never thought they would empty chair him but rightly sick of all the games and spin they have thrown down and decided to go for it. Good for them but it leaves him in a terribly isolated and dangerous position.

4) The previous debates were watched by 22 million people. However disengaged people feel with the political process that is a huge audience so it is obvious that in that respect it improved that engagement. And with such a legacy from the most recent campaign, anyone seen to be wrecking the chances of a similar set of debates this time around will have those 22 million people to answer to.

5) There are simply too many on the record examples of Cameron going on and on about how good a thing TV debates would be prior to the 2010 election. It's abundantly clear that he wanted them then when he was Leader of the Opposition and contrasted with the shenanigans now make it equally clear that he is trying to wriggle out of them for no other reason than partisan advantage.

6) One of Cameron's (and the Conservative Party in general) main weakness is arrogance. They have spent a lot of time and effort trying to clean house in this respect and appear more responsive. But spurning these debates plays right into their opponents' hands allowed them to define Cameron and his party as high handed and not willing to be held to account.

I'm not yet sure if this move could cost Cameron the election but with things so finely balanced I would not be at all surprised.

And frankly if that does happen it will be deservedly so. Maybe future Prime Ministers will think long and hard before playing such transparently obvious and cack-handed games with a process seen as important to our democracy by so many voters.

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