Camera-shy Cameron knows he has no way out

Has David Cameron miscalculated by opting not to take part in all the leaders' debates, Michael Simkins questions.

Has British prime minister David Cameron made the right call by restricting his participation in leaders' debates? Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
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It is often said that generals always prepare for the last war. Well, it can also be argued that politicians always plan for the last election.

The two largest political parties in the UK, the Conservatives and Labour, have been slugging it out between them for as long as anyone can recall.

Majorities swing back and forth, yet to many voters the only noticeable difference is when their member of Parliament swaps sides in the House of Commons, depending on whether they’re in government or not.

But with voting patterns fragmenting, the forthcoming general election promises to be unpredictable. The Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish National Party, UKIP and even the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, could end up holding the balance of power in May.

To reflect this, broadcasters have proposed three live TV debates between the various party leaders in the run up to polling day: two of them to include all seven parties, with a third consisting of a straight head-to-head between prime minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband.

Mr Cameron has rejected this idea, and instead proposed only a single 90-minute discussion involving all seven.

You don’t even have to be Chancellor of the Exchequer to do the maths on this. Seven into 90 is 12 measly minutes, hardly time for each candidate to announce their name, let alone get stuck into policy.

Mr Cameron has infuriated his rivals. Indeed, his attitude seems baffling, for he is by far the most assured performer of them all.

Indeed, since becoming prime minister in 2010 he’s cultivated the persona of a political Captain Kirk on the bridge of the SS United Kingdom. With both hands gripping the lectern, and one foot artfully positioned on the base as if gently pressing an imaginary accelerator, he boldly goes where no man has gone before. So why is he now so camera-shy?

While he may be a suave performer, he’s also no fool. With the economy doing better, unemployment falling, and interest rates pegged at an all-time low, he knows this election is his to lose.

Why risk sacrificing years of hard work for a few unpredictable hours in the spotlight, where one of his rivals might land a lucky verbal blow?

Mr Miliband knows it too, which is why he’s accused Mr Cameron of running scared: “I’ll debate with the prime minister any time, any place, anywhere,” he said last week.

His frustration is hardly surprising. Mr Miliband knows that confronting his opponent, face to face and live on air, offers his best chance of winning at the polls.

The TV companies have reacted equally strongly to Mr Cameron’s peek-a-boo strategy by threatening to stage the other proposed debates without him. It’s even been mooted that a symbolic empty chair might be placed on the podium to emphasise his absence.

But defenders of the prime minister have pointed out that it’s not for broadcasters to dictate terms to the elected leader of the country.

As for Mr Cameron, he has painted himself into a corner, and has no choice but to stick to his guns and hope the TV executives don’t call his bluff.

No doubt he will have taken advice from his backroom staff, each of whom will have persuaded him that in the case of TV debating, less is more. But what seems like a good idea in Whitehall might be viewed very differently in Wigan or Walsall.

“It is a folly of too many”, wrote satirist Jonathan Swift, “to mistake the echo of a London coffee house for the voice of the kingdom.”

Yet if Mr Cameron has indeed misjudged the situation, he knows there’s no way back. Any softening of his stance would be seized upon by his rivals as a sign of weakness and that, he knows, would be the greatest mistake of all.

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins