Cameron Finds Reasons to Block Debates That May Hurt Poll Lead

In opposition, David Cameron championed the idea of election TV debates. Now that he’s the U.K. prime minister, he sees more problems with the format.

Cameron today revived one of his earliest demands about any broadcast debates ahead of the May 7 election, that they should happen before formal campaigning begins on March 30. He has placed a series of other objections in the way of taking part, including a request that first the Green Party, and now Northern Ireland’s parties, should be included.

“Cameron has nothing to gain from debates and plenty to lose,” said Philip Cowley, co-author of “The British General Election of 2010.” “He needs to not take part, while not making it look like he’s blocking them.”

His apparent reluctance has been shared by most incumbent prime ministers, who haven’t wanted to let an opposition politician appear as their equal in a debate. When Cameron did take part in debates in 2010, as leader of the largest opposition party, he realized that the format favors insurgents, and the big winner then was Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

Clegg had his own upset last year ahead of the European elections, when in two debates voters judged him beaten by U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, adding to Cameron’s unwillingness to participate.

Farage Risk

“He doesn’t want them to go ahead, but if they do, more than anything, he wanted a counterbalance to UKIP,” Matthew Goodwin, author of “Revolt on the Right,” a study of UKIP’s rise, said in a telephone interview. “This is driven by a desire not to share a stage with Farage.”

Asked repeatedly about his willingness to participate in the debates in a series of interviews today, Cameron repeatedly said he was “keen for these debates to happen.” Asked if would take part if Northern Ireland’s parties were included, he said: “Yes. I think a deal could be done.” That would mean involving as many as 11 parties.

The BBC, Sky News, ITV and Channel 4 published new proposals on Jan. 23 for the debates to include smaller political parties, and threatened to go ahead without Cameron if he refused to take part.

They propose one debate between Cameron and opposition Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband, and two debates between leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, the U.K. Independence Party, the Scottish National Party, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru.

The inclusion of Scottish and Welsh nationalists in the proposals gave Cameron the opportunity to question why the Northern Irish parties weren’t also invited.

While broadcasters aim to shame the prime minister into taking part, Goodwin said the debates were of much more interest to political insiders than anyone else.

“The reality is that most voters won’t have noticed anyway,” he said.

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