Refusing to debate with Nigel Farage could prove more damaging for David Cameron than the debate itself.
I feel terribly sorry for David Cameron. Despite what is said about him in the press, he is a man of conviction. There are several points of principle on which he is utterly immovable, despite immense pressure from his party to do so. For Example, his belief in our membership of the European Union is steadfast, as is his commitment to the same sex marriage bill.
His problem is not a lack of conviction. Quite the opposite. His commitment to modernisation has alienated too many natural Conservative voters. Until recently this wouldn’t have mattered. There was nowhere else for them to go. Two things have subtly shifted the balance of power in Westminster since the last general election. The relentless rise of UKIP and the hopeless ineptitude of Ed Miliband. An ineffective opposition would usually be enough to guarantee a Conservative victory, but the rise of UKIP has eaten away at the blue vote. Any televised leadership debate should reflect this.
Since the beginning of the year Nigel Farage has had a greater effect on government policy than the official opposition, which is quite an achievement for the leader of a party without a single member of parliament. In splitting the Conservative vote he has forced the old guard to consider the uncomfortable reality of popular opinion, and on these grounds it would be an insult to democracy to exclude him from the leader’s debate.
The recent success of UKIP is partly a result of electoral fatigue, and the fundamental lack of difference between the other three parties and their leaders. At times they appear to be three shades of dishwater, and UKIP exploits this perception with ease. Nigel Farage has embarrassed the establishment by shining a light on them, and that is why his presence is a good thing for democracy. He will force the other three parties to define themselves more clearly, and this will offer voters a sense of choice that has been absent in British politics for too long.
The danger is that in doing so the Conservatives could expose their left flank. This would be a problem if Labour was led by a figure like Blair, but for now they aren’t. Ed Miliband is, even by Labour standards, quite spectacularly useless. He is to Tony Blair what John Major was to Margaret Thatcher. An anaemic successor with no long term prospects.
It is worth considering the excuses that David Cameron could use to exclude UKIP from a televised debate. None of them stand up to scrutiny, and it is important for his credibility that he does not fall into the trap of deploying them.
He could protest on the basis that the debates are a platform for parties that can form the next government. The reality is that the current coalition arrangement makes this point quite irrelevant, and the Liberal Democrats would have to be excluded on the same grounds. To say that UKIP does not have a valid claim to the fourth podium would only play into their hands. The idea that the will of the people is being ignored by the establishment is one of the reasons that the party is thriving, and to exclude them in this way would only serve to confirm this suspicion.
He could argue that other small parties have a stronger claim to inclusion, but this ignores the bigger picture. UKIP is now the fourth party, and to try to deny them this would be to repeat the failures which have led to their existence. The only way to deal with UKIP effectively is to face them as equals. Yes, this would mean saying their name out loud. David Cameron’s ‘That Party’ is beginning to remind me of Bill Clinton’s ‘That Woman’.
The problem for David Cameron and the other leaders is that Nigel Farage would be hard to beat in a debate. His message is popular because it is simple, and therefore it is difficult to argue with. This is a pathetic excuse, and one that would again play into the hands of UKIP. The public would see through it. If the other parties hope to get the better of him then they have to find a way to engage with his arguments rather than dismiss them.
As long as Nigel Farage continues to speak for the maligned majority he will do well. The lesson to be taken from the success of UKIP is that in a democracy the people will not be ignored forever, and the party that pursues policies that are in tune with the wishes of the people will be rewarded for it. He should be included in the television debates to remind the other participants of their failings. The other parties need to find leaders who are as personable as him, or they will continue to be laughed at by the man in the tweed jacket.
Daniel pushes paper at a London based centre-right think tank. Between meddling in the dark arts and raising his young family he occasionally tweets at @danieljksn