Alastair's Blog

Return to:  Blog | Articles | Videos RSS feed

Cameron’s ducking of the TV debates – morally cowardly and democratically wrong

Posted on 5 March 2015 | 6:03am

How well I remember David Cameron proclaiming how marvellous the TV leaders’ debates were and, more importantly, how vital they were to the democratic process in the modern media age.

And how pathetic it is, five years on, to watch his wriggling and weaselling to avoid them.

There is a section in my new book, WINNERS, in the chapter on strategy, where I analyse why, despite a pretty easy playing field, Cameron failed to win a majority five years ago. I go over the various approaches he sought to deploy and conclude that his greatest mistake was endless confusion between strategy and tactics. I think that has been his failing as PM too, night after night passionate on the telly about whatever happens to be in the news, almost always something different to the night before, devoid of an overall strategy.

I compare his style and approach with that of Angela Merkel, for example, and fair to say he doesn’t come out well.

OST is one of my mantras. Set the Objective. Then the hard bit – work out the Strategy. Only then go Tactical. And I list the many ‘strategies’ – from Big Society to ‘greenest government ever,’ from compassionate Conservatism to pandering to UKIP- which turn out to be short lived tactics.

On the TV debates issue, however, he is at least deploying an OST approach.

Objective – avoid the debates.
Strategy – constant objection to the proposed rules and formats.
Tactics – they vary. My favourite was his sudden passionate defence of the right of the Greens to be involved. The latest is to accuse the broadcasters of screwing up the negotiations.

I would have more respect for him if he just came out and said ‘You know, I thought these debates were going to help me in the last election. But I was wrong. I wasn’t terribly good at them, the first one gave Nick Clegg way too big a lift and now I have to live with him every day of the week. My objective in this election is to win and my chances are enhanced if I can keep the debate dominated by a right wing press that is doing my dirty work for me, and avoid giving Ed Miliband any opportunity to break through that prism.’

Instead of which he poses and postures and pretends to want the debates when those negotiating for him make clear they will happen over his dead body. As he is dragged kicking and screaming towards what he now wants – a seven way political version of Family Fortunes – it is actually demeaning to watch, especially as he himself has said before the one that matters most is the one between the only two people standing at this election who might become Prime Minister, him or Ed Miliband.

Of course the fact that so much of the media space is sucked up by this stuff so close to an election is a bonus to him too. He is never happier than when the day to day agenda he follows is set by stories of process and inside the beltway political blah. Because here is the real reason he wants to avoid these debates – he has no great record to defend, a mass of broken promises and missed targets he does not want to be reminded of, and he has no real agenda for the future apart from a referendum on Europe which he promised purely as a (failed) tactical effort to get Nigel Farage’s pea shooters off his lawn.

When I tweeted about his cowardice last night some of his social media defenders – oh ok, just Tim Montgomerie really – reminded me that I had not always been a great fan of TV debates and at various points had advised TB against them. Hypocrite, they (he) shout.

It is true that I was sceptical almost 20 years ago, not least because I worried the media would make the campaign all about themselves, not about the issues at the heart of the campaign. But Cameron was and is in a different position. He is on record many times before and after the first debates saying how vital they are to democracy. And also, the precedent of the debates having been set, any analysis of this has changed fundamentally since 1997. The processology is only dominating the pre campaign because he has chosen that to be so.

So as he pops up today to explain his latest wriggle just ask yourself this …

If Ed Miliband is as hopeless as Cameron and his press poodles say he is, why is the Tory leader so scared of going head to head over an extended period live on TV? He can’t claim to be a presidential figure whose Prime Ministerial qualities will inevitably shine through the electoral fog if he is cowering behind the sofa at the prospect of facing Miliband – unmediated by the press – in a live head-to-head encounter.

Because, to repeat, he has no record worth the name, and no plan for the future. Also, having been involved in the debate preparations on Labour’s side, I can see why one on one, policy v policy, plan v plan, he might want to duck this. But it is morally cowardly and democratically wrong.

Hardly the vision thing is it? It all leaves you realizing the one thing that we know about David Cameron after five years in office is this – he wants to be Prime Minister. But he has no idea why. And is afraid of that becoming obvious to everyone.

  • p a t r i c k

    David Cameron has behaved appallingly over these debates.

    I believe he claims he doesn’t want to do the debate with just himself and Ed Miliband because he thinks two party politics is history. However the Conservatives talk all the time about this election being about getting David Cameron or Ed Miliband as PM, so of course a debate between the two potential PM’s is legitimate and sensible.

    The real reason why David Cameron refuses to debate with Ed Miliband is that he knows Ed Miliband will be far more impressive than him.

    • Scaroth

      Albeit I won’t be voting for Miliband, I would tend to agree with you.

      Cameron is the greatest fraud on the public since…..er……I forget his name now.

  • East Upper Plastic

    Come on Alastair – you advised Blair never to agree to tv debates and you’d be advising Cameron the same.

    So it seems Cameron is not the only hypocrite round here eh?

    • Michele

      Isn’t the point that a precedent has been set and, that being the case, there are now expectations.

  • lindaoutofafrica46

    Oh dear Alastair Campbell – pretty pathetic attempt.

    • Gillian C.

      Bollox. He was spot on.

      • Michele

        Oh I love that word, a long Bolllllllll and a curt ox

    • Michele

      Did you use to post on the Torygraph in tandem with another dog?

      • Michele

        Just to explain to new readers, this post refers to a dog of the canine variety that was the pic linda was using at the time; it wasn’t a slur on any of her presumed behaviour !

  • Gillian C.

    I would quite like to see a debate between Miliband and Cameron, as one of these two men will be, or still be PM after the general election.

    Inviting the leaders of the other numpty parties to debate with the top two leaders is giving the also rans too much credibility.

    It could be amusing I suppose to see Natalie Bennett perform, judging by her recent performances, ghastly woman.

    Can’t wait to see the LibDems annihilated come May. Get the popcorn in, the modern day equivalent of knitting by the gallows.

    • Michele

      Cackle cackle 😉

    • Michele

      She did make a better fist of things on QT tonight but I wish someone had asked Anna Soubry to stop gurning (not quite as massively as she was doing at PMQs!).
      Later on this evening M Portillo tried a pop at Margaret Hodge by describing the paedophilia that took place while she was in charge of social services in Islington which came to light late 90s/2000 (along with that in so many other areas, especially N Wales).
      Tsk, what a shame he didn’t ‘own’ the fact that by that time HIS govt had just lost power after 18 YEARS!
      Neither did he mention (give any credit for) the method by which such crimes have become so reduced since then ie: via the enforcement of CRB checks that Labour enforced so soon after taking over in ’97. They’ve not been 100% popular (causing delay in job starts) but very few such powerful tools could cause no collateral damage at all eh?

  • thebigfeller

    But there’s a contradiction in what you say. Morally cowardly? Yes, absolutely. Democratically wrong? Definitely. One wonders how it’s even possible for, in this day and age, the Prime Minister to duck out of this. Imagine the response in the US if either Presidential candidate even dreamt of doing the same.

    But on the basis that Cameron’s performance in the first debate in particular arguably cost his party a majority in 2010, and that it’s just not in his interests to even give Ed Miliband a chance of appearing Prime Ministerial, the strategy is surely the correct one.

    Cameron’s a more effective politician than he’s often given credit for; his approval ratings are flat out remarkable given the vast unpopularity of his government. If you separate the interests of the country and of democracy from his naked personal interest, he’s making the right move. Isn’t he?

    • Michele

      Right? You just have to use the proper word fgs 🙂

  • Pingback: Cameron ducks TV debate with just Miliband – reaction: Politics Live blog | Het Podium()

  • Mags

    I agree that we need to keep up the pressure to ensure Cameron is not let off the hook. A prime minister with that streak of yellow down his back is no good for Britain. Noticeable how he avoids regular press conferences and is not willing to be held accountable.

  • Dave Simons

    The Conservative Party’s strategy is to stay in government, and all the indications suggest that there is every chance of success in the coming General Election. I predicted that as the Election approached there would be a mass of statistics to create at least the illusion of recovery and I’m confident that enough of the UK electorate will lap it all up and give David Cameron the small majority he needs to get the LibDems off his back. Then he can get on with the serious business which all Conservative governments get on with after winning elections – keeping the rich rich and hammering the poor to pay for it. Thanks to Nick Clegg and his Fixed Term Parliaments, we’d better get braced for five years of ‘lies, damned lies’. I’ve experienced nearly forty years of Conservative government (if I include the last five years of ‘Coalition’) and they never change their spots.

    • Michele

      Better include those five years DS; Clegg has done nothing to ameliorate five years of actual Torydom and knew damn well they would not be able to (he was bought and really should hold no hope of Lib Dems being re-elected after what they’ve enabled since ‘2010).

      They coulda held the balance of power, they wimped out.
      I don’t know whether I was asleep for a few weeks but the removal, so early on after May ’10, of the HoC’s rarely-used privilege ‘No Confidence Vote’ came as a shocking revelation to me when I finally realised it was dead and buried.

      They chose the cabinet roles (for the few) and lost the livelihoods of every single LD councillor in London (and a high proportion of those elsewhere) at the last local elections.
      I don’t know how the ‘top’ Lib Dems can show their faces.

      • Michele

        Have read around and find that the killing-off of NCV motions was part of the establishing of fixed-term parliaments!
        A pretty-much unpublicised ‘part’ (and against something that was so rarely-used anyway, unless in dire years – no mis-reading advised!).

        Surely fixed-term was about removing a PM’s autocratic right to decide when to call an election and not about their right to their job for the full five years no matter the hash they or their colleagues make of it. Which others of us have such a right fgs?
        I will keep schtummm about those on 0hrs contracts who must feel like objects, not subjects in this realm.

        Yep, Nick Clegg has been The Enabler for so much wrongness, he took the pieces of gold.

  • Pingback: Cameron ducks TV debate with just Miliband – reaction: Politics Live blog | International Christian Herald()

  • Pingback: Alastair Campbell on TV Debates: Then and Now - Guy Fawkes' blog()

  • Pingback: Alastair Campbell on TV Debates: Then and Now | Alternative News Network()

  • reaguns

    Ok let’s try to be fair.

    The fact is almost every incumbent tries to avoid debates. Hence Blair did, and Alastair advised him to, Margaret Thatcher did (refused Callaghan and Kinnock), Brown tried to, and now Cameron will.

    The reason is that whoever is highest in public opinion is usually damaged by the debate, and whoever is lowest is usually helped.

    Which explains why, the more useless Ed is, the less Cameron wants to debate him.

    I don’t agree with this view thought all politicians including Brown, Blair, Thatcher and Cameron share it.

    Does anyone think a president / prime minister with an unequivocally great record would want to refuse a debate? Of course not! Then it helps the incumbent, because they can just relentless hammer home their record! Reagan’s high polling I believe soared further in 84 when he reminded them he had ended inflation and recession, restored enormous growth, WITH jobs, and rebuilt US defences!

    All of which explains why it was Major, not Blair, who wanted a debate in 1997 and Blair chickened out of that one. He had such a strong lead, Major was in a no-lose situation. Plus Major could have beat him over the head with his genuinely good record on the economy and crime.

    Now on to my opinion. I will ALWAYS vote against anyone who ducks out of the debates. I was not going to vote for Cameron anyway, but nor was I planning to vote against him, or to cast my vote at all. Now I will vote for whichever candidate has the most chance of defeating the conservative in my constituency, for this reason. Cameron is indeed a hypocrite and a coward.

    But remember one thing – if Ed wins, and due to this I now hope he does, he too will try to duck out of debates before the next election. And all those of you criticising Cameron now, your words will be remembered.

  • Pingback: David Cameron ducks TV debate with just Miliband – reaction: Politics Live | Newsnet()

  • Janet Edwards

    Cameron is making himself look even more ridiculous than usual over his antics to avoid TV debates. But we shouldn’t be surprised as it’s been a hallmark of this Government to avoid public scrutiny.

    It started very early on. Remember David Laws refusing to appear on Question Time with you? Then we had Paxman failing to get George Osborne to appear on Newsnight but having to settle for Danny Alexander and the hapless Chloe Smith. Andrew Neil regularly tweets about Osborne refusing interviews despite Ed Balls’ many appearances. We were then made aware by the BBC (to their credit) that although Danny Alexander appeared on the same episode of Newsnight with Rachel Reeves, he refused to debate directly with her. On another occasion Sharon Hodgson tweeted ‘just back from Daily Politics. Liz Truss’ people wouldn’t let her be in studio – she was sat in next room, and I had no right to reply.’

    Broadcasters don’t mention it now but clearly a lack of real challenge to ministers has become the norm. Occasional easy TV breakfast sofa chats about the most scrutiny Cameron & Osborne are prepared to offer. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown regularly grappled with tough interviewers but weak politicians are not going to put themselves in the spotlight. Broadcasters, however, should be honest with us about the manipulation that goes on behind the scenes and stand firm against it. They should start by ’empty chairing’ Cameron.

    • Gillian C.

      Re. Your second para. Well observed and remembered. Catalogued?

  • scooke7

    Of all the BS that Campbell has spouted on here, his very own website, this latest offering is one of the most pathetic.
    He talks on the one hand about Angela Merkel and how mature German politics is that she attended an opposition event some time ago. And yet he conveniently chooses not to mention that Germany operates a proportional-system of voting. And of course it is well known that Campbell does not support AV. I imagine Germany has TV debates that don’t include smaller parties.
    He has also talked about how he thinks no party will win a majority in May. If that is the case, does he not think that voters have a right to hear from other parties that could go into government? Therefore any debates have to include the smaller political parties. Imagine Labour going into coalition with Greens/Sinn Fein/SNP* and we the voters have no idea or control because by that time the votes would have already been cast.

    He also talks about how he had a different opinion about debates 20 years ago. The stupidity of this argument is that 20 years ago, a 1 v 1 debate would have been possible & made sense. But the complexion today is different because there are other political parties, if the polls are to be believed, who have a right to be heard because they could well be in govt. in May. So, Cameron is entirely correct in insisting that they attend the debates.

    Personally, I think the TV debates are one of stupidest things to be imported fro America because the UK system is not a 1 v 1 where we’re electing a President. On top of that, we have a bunch of incompetent broadcasters who seem not to be able to organise the proverbial piss-up.

    No, at the end of the day this article is all about doing Ed & Ed’s dirty work by slinging mud at Cameron and resorting to name-calling. This is because Labour themselves have no new ideas on anything of importance. All they have is the mansion tax and I can confidently say that if elected, a Labour government will whack up Council taxes like they did in 2001 to go on a spending spree. Same old Labour, always taxing.

    In deciding who to vote for in May, there is one simple formula that I would suggest. It is not new and it was the question Ronald Reagan posed in the 1980 US presidential election.

    “Are you better off today than you were 5** years ago”?
    You then cast your vote in May according to the answer you derived.
    If the TV debates don’t happen at all, voters can still go and vote according to the issues. Cor, imagine that!

    * Delete whichever is inapplicable
    ** It was 4 in the original version.

    • Janet Edwards

      The answer to that question is No. It’s agreed, we vote him out then.

    • Michele

      Why don’t you ask him direct?
      Grandstanding TO others in the third person is wimpy.

      Go on, gerronwivit.

    • Michele

      S’funny how Torygraph regulars start hovering around this blog at certain times (never staying very long, bored to tears by the absence of a muffling report function).
      That’s a very nasty death wish you have posted re Paxo there recently, your type really is not wanted.
      Feeble of me innit and this moreso …… bugger off.

    • Michele

      Why would a coalition be necessary?
      It’s inconceivable that any honourable Scottish MP would vote with Tories out of spite if they were simply expected (during a minority Labour govt) to carry on voting as they already do ie: with a leftish lean.

  • Ehtch

    David “Fog on the Thames” Cameron. Forget issues, fill the media with any old crap. He is a glove puppet for the carpetbaggers. PMQs is a joke with him “answering”, a total waste of half an hour of The Commons’ time. He’s a prize rotter, as well as a coward. Send him white feathers.

  • Deanrees93

    I find this whole charade of David Cameron shying away from these debates beyond belief, and the ridiculous excuses that are being churned out, e.g. the Greens taking part! He is even more deluded than I thought if he seriously thinks people will believe this rubbish! I find it insulting that he takes the electorate for such fools!

    Even Grant Shapps could not defend the indefensible on Daily Politics today, and did his utmost unsuccessfully, to spin his way out of the questioning by Andrew Neal.

    If Ed M is so appalling, as DC insists he is, then he should have no worries whatsoever in debating with him.The fact is he would be out of his ‘safe’ comfort zone if he did, and just maybe his mask would slip!

    He should have walked into No 10 in 2010, but he didn’t. If the truth be known, he is far less confident about his future that he would care to admit. Finally, as far as these debates are concerned he should remember he is PM, and not running a private members club!

  • Dominic

    There is also the issue that the only debate he will countenance is one before their manifesto is published. Grant Shapps tried to defend this on World at One; but Martha Kearney completed busted him.
    “Are you in favour of a three child cap on child
    benefits?” she asked.
    “We’ve got a budget and a manifesto coming up – lets talk about
    it when the time comes”

    That’s what a pre-manifesto debate will be like!

  • KDouglas

    I heard you on the radio today, Alastair, and you’ve still got it.

    There is lengthy footage showing how much DC once craved this innovation in our political life. How embarrassing for him.

  • law

    Gordon Brown had the balls to turn up. Cameron is running scared.

  • Pingback: David Cameron’s TV debate conundrum | STUART BRUCE()

  • Michele

    David Cameron has been dodging certain topics in the past couple of weeks but was very ‘open’ yesterday about his joy re his daughter getting in to the local comp.

    Eh? Exactly what is comprehensive about a faith school? They’re undesirable enough at Primary level fgs but at Secondary? Ye gods. Poor manipulated exploited used girl.

  • Michele

    Funny article here :
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/24/david-cameron-kitchen-interview

    I am speculating about the Downing St kitchen and whether it has also been recently fitted out with all the latest ‘accessories’ and if so at whose expense and from (you know) which shop (nudge nudge :-)?

  • Michele

    Re the ‘promise’ from DC that he will lead for another fixed term full 5yrs IF they win on May 7th I wonder if he’ll also have a little cackle about the fact that with so little publicity there is also no chance of a No Confidence Vote during that time.

    The two changes were a mutual dependence rig-up weren’t they? They blah blahed about fixed-terms doing away with any future PM having the prerogative to name the day of a future election but didn’t his doing away with any possibility of an opposition opening a NCV achieving just the same thing for him?

  • Pingback: David Cameron’s TV debate conundrum – what would you do? | Posts()