David Cameron’s TV debate conundrum – what would you do?

I was asked yesterday how as a PR adviser I would advise UK prime minister David Cameron to get out of the massive hole he is in regarding the TV general election debates. Tony Blair’s former director of communications, Alastair Campbell has a great blog analysing what happened at the start of the debate about the debates and what happened earlier in the week when Cameron refused to participate in any debates during the actual election campaign, despite the fact that all the other main parties supported them.

But now the broadcasters have, predictably, called his bluff and said that the debates will go ahead with or without him.

So as a PR adviser what would I advise him? Well I wouldn’t start here. If I’d been advising him I’d have put a stop to the chaos long before this. It was so predictable that the broadcasters would call his bluff and go ahead with the debates that I’m sure his PR advisers must have a game plan for dealing with it. But I’m at a loss to figure out what it could be. I suspect the reality is they don’t have a fully thought out plan.

What I’m really interested in is:

What would you do?

If he sticks to his guns and refuses to debate he looks foolish, out of touch and arrogant. In 2010 29.7 million people voted and 22 million people watched the debates. That’s a lot of people to snub and treat with contempt.

But he can’t back down and agree to the broadcasters’ offer. If he does he’ll look foolish, out of touch and weak.

Giving in is hardly the actions of a leader. But, neither is refusing to debate and be scrutinised on your record and your beliefs.

So if both choices make him look foolish and out of touch, it’s a simple choice between arrogant or weak. Neither is good, as he already has a reputation for both.

Logically therefore the only solution must be a ‘third way’. He needs to come up with a counter offer that provides the public with the debates that they have a right to expect, but doesn’t see him simply agreeing to the broadcasters proposals that he’s already rejected.

I’m not usually a fan of negative campaigning, but Labour has created a brilliant attack video with clips of Cameron debating with himself as when in opposition he thought debates were politically advantageous and was a massive advocate.

My non-UK readers might need some context to this story. There has been a media debate over the last few months, reaching a crescendo this week, on televised general election debates. The UK traditionally doesn’t have TV debates, because we have a parliamentary system of democracy where our MPs choose who will be prime minister, not a presidential one where the people choose. We had our first in 2010 where the leaders of the three main political parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – did three head to head debates. The general consensus is that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg won the debates, but it didn’t translate to electoral success and his party remained roughly the same size far smaller than the two big parties that could actually provide us with a prime minister.

There have been too many twists and turns to detail here, but there are two main issues. Firstly, should we have more parties this time? Since 2010 the Liberal Democrats are at an all-time low in the opinion polls and UK Independence Party consistently out polls them and also crucially won the European elections. Both UKIP and the Greens are national political parties that now have elected MPs in the House of Commons. There have always been minority parties in the House of Commons, sometimes with a sizeable number of MPs, but they are from parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so unlike UKIP and the Greens aren’t ones that most people could vote for.

The second issue is the one I’m dealing with here. Namely that the prime minister doesn’t want to do the debates. The argument put forward by supporters of his position is that as sitting prime minister he’s the one with the most to lose and that it will provide the ‘oxygen of publicity’ to insurgent parties like UKIP. They then use all sorts of tactics and excuses to cover this up. Some of the excuses are valid, but can be solved. Others are simply spin.

Rob Skinner also has a great post on this subject Cameron’s clanger: the great election debate fiasco.

Disclaimer: I’m a member of the Labour Party and have previously advised it and Labour cabinet and shadow cabinet ministers, but am not currently doing so.

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