Cameron has more excuses not to agree to debate. Photo: Getty
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"I want to go and debate": David Cameron on the televised leaders' debates

The Prime Minister has said he would only agree to the TV debates under certain circumstances.

It is 100 days until the general election, and what seems like the 100th development in the sorry saga that is the televised leaders' debates.

This morning, speaking on the BBC's Today programme, David Cameron came the closest he has so far to saying he will take part in the TV debates. However, he caveated his response by saying that he would only participate under certain circumstances.

The very simple question put to him was: "Is it your intention to take part in the television debates?"

He replied:

Yes, I’d like that to happen. But if you include one minor party, Ukip, you have to include another minor party, the Greens . . . The broadcasters have gone rather further than I expected . . . You can’t have someone from Plaid Cymru and the SNP without someone from Northern Ireland, so they’ve got in a bit of a muddle over that.

Pushed on whether he will definitely take part, Cameron would only go so far as to say, "I want to go and debate" and "We've got to get on with these debates".

The circumstances under which he would participate include representation of Northern Ireland in the debates – the DUP and Sinn Fein have so far been left out by the broadcasters – and also to broadcast the debates as soon as possible, before the election campaign.

On the first demand, as George reported last week, it looks like the PM is using the DUP's absence as another excuse not to agree to the debates, as he did when the Greens had been excluded from the panels. Also, the Tories are preparing for the circumstances of having to do a deal with the DUP behind the scenes in anticipation of a hung parliament.

On the second demand, Cameron argued that the television debates during the 2010 election would have been "better outside the election campaign" because "they took the life out of the campaign, because nobody could talk about anything else".

Cameron is coming under increasing pressure to agree to take part, as the broadcasters are coming up with new formats to satisfy the PM's wishes, and his rival party leaders are painting him as a coward for his reticence. Nigel Farage has called Cameron a "chicken" on the issue, and Ed Miliband has accused him of "running scared".

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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