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Cameron: Refusing to take part in the TV debates, is not only an insult to young people, but shows the electorate as a whole utter contempt.

Leaders Debates from April 2010. Will Cameron re-appear?

“I have to say to the Prime Minister: If he really thinks that these exchanges once a week are the substitute for a proper television debate, then he’s even more out of touch than I thought. We have to be honest with ourselves, not many people watch these exchanges – and not all those that do are hugely impressed with them….what on earth is he frightened of?”

What a punishing blow from the Leader of the Opposition to the Prime Minister of Great Britain, during the rowdy bloodbath that is Prime Minister’s Questions.

In 2008.

Yes, that remark was not delivered by Ed Miliband to David Cameron, regarding the notion of TV Debates (though you’d be forgiven for thinking as much). No – that statement was delivered by none other than David Cameron himself, to the then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Of course, in the intervening years between then and the 2010 election, Gordon Brown changed his mind and decided to debate with Cameron and Clegg after all.

So what’s changed?

Well, now Cameron has a record to defend. Not only that, but he was widely considered last time to have not fared well in the TV debates – many Tories actually blame their inability to secure a majority on Cameron’s poor performance, and it’s a badly-kept secret that Cameron’s advisors think it’s better he avoids them and risks a few weeks of condemnation. They also believed Ed Miliband’s personal poll ratings to be so low, that all he’d have to do at a debate is turn up and not fall flat on his face to exceed public expectation of him. Should he actually do better than Cameron, that would be even worse.

So, they’re determined to avoid these debates at all costs – the Conservative representatives at negotiations with the broadcasters were apparently determined to sabotage the debates at all costs.

But could this backfire?

Whereas America has had regular TV debates in the run-up to general elections since 1976, here in Britain they are a new phenomenon. 2010 was the first time party leaders had gone head-to-head, and twenty-two million people watched them.

That’s right – twenty-two million. Take a seat, Top Gear.

Not only that, but young voters now have an additional way to engage with party leaders – through online debates. Thanks to Bite The Ballot’s #LeadersLive, at least eleven and a half thousand young people have watched the leaders of the main parties debate big issues – all except David Cameron, who cancelled his appearance in January and still hasn’t rescheduled.

Before that, Cameron was already making noises about not appearing in any TV Debates without the inclusion of the Green Party. But given that he’d now pulled out of an online debate in which the Greens were the first party featured (with UKIP following close behind), it seemed unlikely that Cameron’s trying to wriggle out of both sets of debates was anything to do with a new-found compassion for Natalie Bennett.

The broadcasters due to screen these TV debates – the BBC, ITV, and Sky – obviously realised this. To call the Prime Minister’s bluff, not only did they invite the Greens, but they also invited two of the other largest parties in the UK – the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

And now, two months later, Cameron still hasn’t agreed to taking part in more than one seven-party debate lasting only 90 minutes – that’s barely 10 minutes for each candidate. Despite claiming that that and a debate between the two people most likely to become Prime Minister – himself and Ed Miliband, in this case – are the only sensible options, he will not agree to the latter, even after both Miliband and Sky have offered to do it on a date of his choosing.

The broadcasters have planned 2 seven party debates lasting 2 hours – but Cameron’s only agreed to one. Photo: Getty

He has also demanded any debates happen outside the election period, before any of the parties’ – including his own – manifestos have been published.

How can party leaders be expected to have a proper television debate about the choice facing the country without seeing the parties’ full manifestos? How can we know in full what is on offer unless the debates happen during the election period?

Quite rightly, the broadcasters have had enough, and have implied they will ‘empty-chair’ Cameron if he chooses not to attend the three debates, all of which are still going ahead. Some Tory members have claimed such a move would breach the broadcaster’s obligation to impartiality in election coverage, but if the offer has been extended to Cameron and he chooses not to except, when the other parties have all agreed, surely he only has himself to blame if he feels he is not properly represented?

As pressure mounts up on the Prime Minister – his hypocrisy regarding his change in stance on the debates, his progressively more ridiculous excuses – one can’t help but take the view that he’s running scared, and feels unable to defend either his record, or the points to be released in his manifesto, in front of the entire viewing public.

Cancelling his #LeadersLive debate, specifically aimed at young voters like ourselves, was insulting – even to those who are unlikely to vote Conservative, many were willing to listen and could even have been swayed had he performed well.

Refusing to take part in the TV debates, is not only an insult to young people, but shows the electorate as a whole utter contempt. No one part should be allowed to dictate the format of the debates – they may negotiate it, as all of the parties due to be involved have done so, but no one party should have an overall say.

The election is on the 7th May. I urge you to use your vote wisely. Study these debates, and more than anything, pay attention to who’s actually there.

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  1. UPDATE: Earlier today, it was announced that David Cameron had accepted the invitation to take part in one seven-way debate on the 2nd April – during the election period, as the broadcasters had originally proposed.

    However, it sounds as if, in exchange for his agreement for 1 debate in the election period, the other two have been more-or-less scrapped. The 16th April debate would now include all of the parties except Labour and the Conservatives.
    The 30th April (the originally planned date for a head-to-head debate between Cameron and Miliband) would now be a Question Time-style programme by the BBC with 30 minutes each for Cameron, Miliband and Nick Clegg.

    The 26 March will see a joint broadcast between Channel 4/Sky, with Jeremy Paxman interviewing Ed Miliband and David Cameron separately, in front of a live audience. The two leaders would not share the stage.

    Though David Cameron and the Conservatives claimed this to be a formal offer, the other parties seemed to be unaware of these new proposals – UKIP claimed the only proposal they were aware of was for 3 debates, 2 involving them, Natalie Bennett said we’re still in a very fluid situation over TV debates, and Ed Miliband has claimed that there was no new proposal from the broadcasters.

    The implication is that Cameron has publicly agreed to something that was under discussion – or possibly hadn’t yet been discussed with other party leaders. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, says Mr Cameron’s offer is an “inevitable climbdown”, and Ed Miliband says “I’m fighting for the debate between me and David Cameron which the British people want.”

    The BBC tweeted that the debates and programming for the election are still a work in progress. The broadcasters had sounded out the Conservatives regarding these potential proposals, then Labour, the Lib Dems and other parties. They noted that discussions continue, so it is unclear if the proposals had reached the other parties at the time of the Conservatives’ announcement. The reaction of the other party leaders would imply the that they hadn’t, and that Cameron has jumped the gun – possibly to put pressure on the other parties to agree to the new proposals, rather than chase the old ones – and to avoid a head-to-head with Ed Miliband at all costs.


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