American-style TV debates are a relatively new phenomena in the U.K., introduced only in 2010. They were popular, with some 22 million tuning in over the course of three debates.
But this time, the televised debates are shrouded in controversy, and it’s unclear whether they will actually happen before the general election May 7, which polls suggest is one of the closest in a generation.
The broadcasters, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News, insisted on Friday that they intend to press ahead with three debates — currently scheduled for April 2, 16 and 30 — and urged Cameron to reconsider his “final offer” to appear in only one debate.
Ed Miliband, leader of the Labor Party, told the BBC that the broadcasters should reserve the right to “empty chair” the prime minister if he refuses to show up.
Earlier in the week, Cameron’s office said that he would take part in only one debate with at least seven party leaders, reflecting the fragmentation of the political landscape. Support for smaller parties has surged, with current polls suggesting that they could win up to 30 percent of the vote.
It’s unclear who will blink first. In a written response to the broadcasters Friday, Craig Oliver, Cameron’s chief spin doctor, said: “I am ready to discuss at your convenience the logistics of making the debate we have suggested happen."
Under Britain’s parliamentary system, Britons don’t vote directly for the person who becomes prime minister. Before the TV debates were introduced here in 2010, critics said they were too American, too presidential, too much about the personalities of the leaders and not enough about the policies of the parties.
Cameron was no such critic. When he was in opposition, he repeatedly goaded then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown to a TV debate.
“What on Earth is he frightened of?” Cameron said in Parliament in 2008.
Today, Cameron, as prime minister, is receiving the same kind of criticism he once gleefully doled out in opposition.
One of the big differences between the U.S. and U.K. debates is that there is no U.K. equivalent of the Commission on Presidential Debates. While the process isn’t pain-free in the U.S., rules for inclusion in the debate are negotiated every four years and long before the actual election.
By contrast, there are only two months until the British election, and with all the talk of red lines, ultimatums, and empty chairing, it’s impossible to say what exactly will happen.
In a Times of London editorial Friday, the paper said that “an early task for the next government must be to establish clear rules on debates for five years hence.”
Last fall, the broadcasters proposed a four-way debate with the leaders of the Conservatives, Labor, Liberal Democrats and UKIP. Cameron argued that it wasn’t fair to include a smaller party like UKIP, which is expected to peel votes away from his Conservative Party, if the Green Party was not included. The left-leaning Greens are likely to pull votes from Labor, which may be another reason he wanted them included.
The broadcasters returned with a proposed “7-7-2” format: two debates with seven party leaders, and one with just Cameron and Miliband, the only two likely to be prime minister.
On Thursday, Cameron said that he was breaking the “logjam” created by the broadcasters by agreeing to one TV debate with at least seven leaders.
The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has accused the Conservative Party of “grandly” calling the shots. “It’s as if they think they are ordering a drink in the drawing room of Downton Abbey and telling everybody else what they should do. It’s not for one party to grandly tell everybody else what’s going to happen,” he told LBC radio.
Cameron’s “final offer” meant he had torpedoed the idea of a head-to-head with Miliband, his main rival. Miliband told the BBC that Cameron was “ducking” and “weaving” and that he would debate the premier “any time, any place, any where.”
Cameron is an astute debater, so why is he shying away from the debates this time?
Analysts say he decided there is little for him to gain. Incumbents usually aren't keen on TV debates, and with Miliband’s personal ratings being so poor, even a modest performance from him could dispel the idea that he’s not up for the job. The race is nail-bitingly close, and it seemed Cameron was willing to endure a few days of bad headlines as long as Miliband’s unpopular image remained intact.
But with the broadcasters not budging, the gamble could backfire if voters judge him to be cowardly and cheating the electorate of three debates with their prime minister.
While the squabbles are infused with local politicking, perhaps Britons should not be too surprised by all the controversy.
The first TV debate in America was in 1960, famously between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, but they didn’t happen again for another 16 years. Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and Nixon in 1968 and 1972, refused to debate with opponents on television. It wasn’t until Gerald Ford agreed to debate Jimmy Carter that they became a staple in the U.S. election cycle.