British PM Cameron Under Fire Over Rejection of TV Debates

Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative political party leader David Cameron delivers a speech to supporters in north London March 7, 2015. Neil Hall/Reuters

British prime minister David Cameron is facing a potential PR disaster that could cost him dear in the forthcoming general election over his continuing refusal to attend a series of televised debates between the main party leaders, including a head-to-head debate with opposition leader Ed Miliband.

The British broadcasters have made proposals for three televised debates - two debates with seven party leaders on the 2nd and 16th April and a high-stakes confrontation between Cameron and Miliband on 30th April a week before the vote - which were accepted by Labour and the Liberal Democrats but rejected by the prime minister.

Craig Oliver, Cameron's director of communications wrote to the broadcasters with a "final offer" of one seven-way debate to take place on 23rd March, before the parties' manifestos are launched. But this was rejected by the broadcasters who said the planned debates would go ahead, leaving the prime minister facing being represented by an empty podium at the events.

Cameron reiterated today during a speech that he would not be attending the planned debates, saying: "I am trying to break the log-jam [over the debates] because I am proposing a television debate before the campaign gets under way."

"That is my proposal, I hope it will be taken up, but I won't be changing my opinion about the other proposals," he added.

Leaving the debates to go ahead without him would allow his opponents an open goal to paint Cameron as undemocratic and scared to debate. Miliband, who has considerably poorer personal ratings than Cameron, said the prime minister was "running scared". Despite his protestations, a YouGov poll showed that the majority of the public blame him for the uncertainty surrounding the planned debates.

The issue for David Cameron, says Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde John Curtice, is that he has nothing to gain from taking part.

"The thing he is most particularly saying no to is the head-to-head with [opposition leader] Miliband," he explains.

"The calculation is it's better not to happen, and if it does happen, it's better to involve lots and lots of people therefore nobody will get too much of an opportunity to shine. Given he's more popular than Miliband, what's he got to gain from an event where, given what we know about his performances at prime ministers questions [the weekly debate in the House of Commons], there must be a 50% chance Miliband will come out of a debate better than Cameron."

A YouGov poll released yesterday shows that 38% of the public blame Cameron for the fiasco; 13% blame the broadcasters and 23% blame them equally. It also shows that while 65% think Ed Miliband genuinely wants a debate, 62% think Cameron is actively trying to avoid one.

The results do not look good for David Cameron, according to ‎associate director of political and social research at YouGov, Laurence Janta-Lipinski. One problem he says the prime minister could face is "the debate about the debate" drowning out everything else he wants to get across to the electorate in the runup to polling day on 7th May.

"If every time he wants to talk about the economy etcetera, and the only question he's getting asked is why aren't you taking part in the debate, it obviously becomes more difficult for him to talk about the election in the terms he wants to," he says.

"In that respect there could be some impact. But in terms of how the public view him for not taking part at the moment I would suggest that he probably won't have much fall out. Its only a PR disaster if anyone pays any attention."

And Janta-Lipinski thinks Cameron is pinning his hopes on the debates issue not gaining too much attention outside of the "Westminster bubble".

"He'll be relying on lots of column inches written by people that will be shared amongst the same groups of people, political obsessives who have by and large already made up their minds who they will vote for, and it won't go through to the wider public who don't really care about these issues."

Capitalising on the fallout from Cameron's reticence, Miliband said on Sunday that if elected, his party would make the debates into law, while the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg has offered to speak for the coalition government in Cameron's place.

There is also the possibility that the Conservatives could mount a legal challenge to any attempt to go ahead with the debates without Cameron, on the grounds of impartiality the broadcasters are bound to.