Election TV Debates: What Is May So Afraid Of?

Elliot King April 26, 2017 2
Election TV Debates: What Is May So Afraid Of?

With last week’s news that the country will be heading to the polls once more following the Prime Minister’s announcement of a snap general election, battle buses are being prepared, flyers created and political memes are already doing the rounds on social media. However, one issue also common with recent elections has resubmerged: the televised leaders’ debates. While Mrs May appears to have ruled out the possibility of participating in any such debates, I take a look back at some of the previous debates and argue why, given the line-up of her counterparts, she has more to gain than lose by taking part.

Traditionally, leaders’ debates tend to favour the underdog as opposed to the incumbent. This is best illustrated by a fresh faced and dynamic Nick Clegg offering to do things ‘differently’ in a new form of ‘decent, open politics’ during the 2010 debates. However, that form of decent and open politics soon vanished upon the breaking of the Liberal Democrat’s manifesto promise on tuition fees, which ultimately triggered Clegg’s humiliating demise. The traditional notion of the underdog and the incumbent may well be the reason that May has ruled out any head-to-head debates, and instead opted to get ‘out and about’ and meet voters in person instead of appearing in any live head-to-heads. Though those familiar with campaigning will know that pounding the pavements is the best way to get among voters, there can be no hiding away from the fact that we now live in a modern age, with technology at its centre, and the electorate deserve to hear from each of the party leaders, with 56% of voters believing she should take part.

Mrs May is not alone in her skepticism of the debates. David Cameron took a similar route during the 2015 General Election campaign, in refusing to debate Ed Miliband head-to-head. He was eventually cornered into ITV’s seven way debate, meaning he shared a platform with Miliband just once. Although Downing Street are right to be cautious, I feel they are being overly so this time, especially given the opponents in the current batch of party leaders and May’s extended honeymoon period. With Labour, the Lib Dems, SNP and the Greens all pushing to ‘empty chair’ the PM, Number 10 will be wary not to be forced into any embarrassing U-turn.

Given Theresa May faces Jeremy Corbyn weekly at PMQs, it is odd that she would shy away from such a meeting in a TV debate. This is even odder when taking a closer look into the polls, with May leading Corbyn by a massive 39 points on the question of who would make the best Prime Minister. Though neither is known for their charisma, May has handled Corbyn with ease most weeks, who at best has been positively hapless. But to give Corbyn credit, he was clearly passionate and popular during both leadership hustings. Still, it is important to remember that this was to specific Labour members. Will this resonate with the wider public? Given his personal approval ratings, as well as Labour’s I would say not, but clearly May’s team are not willing to take that risk.

Just like the election itself, it is likely that a main feature of any such debate would also be Brexit. This means that May’s main opposition could also be along Brexit lines, notably from Remoaner-In-Chief, Tim Farron. While Farron’s policies may prove extremely popular with Remain voters, it is likely that his irritating manner, often greeted by groans in the Commons and even picked up upon by Speaker, John Bercow, could be similarly greeted with disapproval by viewers. Furthermore, Farron has come under increasing pressure lately and been left red-faced on numerous occasions over his refusal to answer whether gay sex is a sin, which could swing it back to May if pushed on this insulting rhetoric during any live debates.

Other leaders who might feature during the debate, would be UKIP’s Nutall, Leanne Wood (who?) of Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party’s joint leaders, Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, who I assume will not share a plinth, but could easily lead to voter confusion if they were to rotate during different debates. To the English’s delight, Nicola Sturgeon could also appear if ITV were to stick to a format similar to their 2015 debates, which could prove to be a tasty fight I can only see May winning while further exposing Sturgeon’s divisive and self-obsessed agenda.

While it appears there is strong public demand for head-to-head debates, it looks like Downing Street are pursuing the same route as Cameron, and seeking alternative debate formats. In doing so, this looks set to be unpopular with viewers and May could be doing herself more harm than good. However, despite her composed manner, the ratings of fellow leaders and having an authoritative upper hand over them for the reasons mentioned, clearly the notoriously cautious PM is not taking any chance, given her overwhelming lead in the polls, of allowing an underdog to step on her kitten heels.

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