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.