It could be worse for the Prime Minister. The broadcasters’ decision to “empty chair” Theresa May when they hold general election leaders’ debates may simply mean that they will literally have an empty podium where Theresa May ought to be. When Roy Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, failed to show up for a session of Have I Got News For You he was famously represented by a tub of lard.
Nonetheless, her reluctance to go face to face with her principal opponents does her no favours. For no good reason it makes her look rather cowardly, or at least timid. As Jeremy Corbyn told her in the Commons, if she wants the election to be about “leadership”, as she has stated, then why not show some leadership by defending her Government’s record in unarmed combat?
Coupled with an unnerving and growing undercurrent of public cynicism about Ms May’s decision to go for a snap election, the decision not to take part can only damage her hitherto respectable public approval ratings. Brand May, in other words, has been built upon an image of brave, straight leadership; breaking promises and running away from public confrontation with a comparatively feeble opposition suggests, by contrast, that she doesn’t have confidence in her own abilities.
However, declining to participate in such pre-election jousting, at least initially, is nothing new or unusual. Every general election campaign is characterised by similar arguments. The usual convention is for the Leader of the Opposition to challenge a Prime Minister to a TV debate. The request is then turned down. An incumbent usually has nothing to gain from such an exercise.
Tony Blair, for example, routinely turned down the opportunity to face, successively, William Hague and Michael Howard. David Cameron, in 2015, also made sure he did not directly debate with Ed Miliband. The only exception to this rule is when a prime minister is so unpopular that they are happy to take on an opposition leader in conditions when the incumbent premier has nothing to lose. Thus, Gordon Brown, way behind in the polls in 2010, was prepared to take the risk of facing Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg, and so desperate was the then Prime Minister John Major in 1997 that it was he who challenged Blair to a contest.
The rules about the involvement of the Liberal Democrat and other smaller party leaders usually offers a convenient set of obstacles to hide behind. But it only takes one gaffe, a trip, one stifled yawn or one glance at a wristwatch – or an unusually accomplished performance by another participant, as in the “Cleggmania” episode – for the gambit to go horribly wrong. There is an element of luck involved. The line that they debate each other all the time in parliament is another transparently lame dodge.
Still, a TV debate, or a series of them, would be good for democracy. The US presidential election, though debauched by Russian hacking and the behaviour or Donald Trump, was enlivened by the confrontations between Mr Trump and Hillary Clinton. In 2010, the first British TV debates between the party leaders helped energise the electorate, pushed voter turnout up and brought the public to the centre of the arguments, as they never had before. Already there are signs that this 50-day campaign will fatigue too many voters – especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where they have had more than their share of democracy in recent years. This will no doubt depress turnout and transform what should be one of the most vital elections in modern times into a bore-athon. Televised debates would at least spice things up a little.
As for who should take part, this is of secondary importance if Ms May doesn’t show up. There is an obvious case for the main national parties, including Ukip, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party – even though only one of the Greens’ two co-leaders could take part. Then there is the claim of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and, by extension, the leaders of Plaid Cymru, the Democratic Unionist Party, the SDLP and every other party. These are tricky questions for the broadcasters to answer, but not as tricky as squaring their obligation to ensure fair coverage with a programme in which there would be no Conservative voice, should Ms May boycott it while Jeremy Corbyn, Paul Nuttall, Tim Farron and the rest participate. The broadcasters would be in the right; but it would not prevent the Tories and their mischievous allies in the press trying to misuse the Representation of the People Act in attempting to show media “bias”.
All would be solved – and the Prime Minister’s own interests would be served well – if she simply agreed to one single landmark TV debate, perhaps shared between the main channels. If she wants the best possible mandate for her Brexit negotiations and a plan for government then taking part in every forum should be part of that. What is she scared of?