David Cameron delivers a speech to business leaders at a conference in the Old Granada TV Studios on January 8, 2015 in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
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PMQs review: Cameron's Green shield protects him from Miliband's TV debates attack

The PM's charge that the Labour leader was running scared of the Greens allowed him to avoid humiliation. 

The debate about the debates came to today's PMQs. After David Cameron's self-interested declaration that he won't participate unless the Greens are included, Ed Miliband wryly reminded him of what "a party leader" said in 2010: "It would have been feeble to find some excuse to back out. So I thought we've got to stick at this. We've got to do it." Cameron replied by merely restating his original position: "You cannot have two minor parties [the Lib Dems and Ukip] without the third minor party" (a line that prompted a cry of pain from Nick Clegg). He added: "So I put the question to him, why is he so frightened of debating the Green Party?"

It was, as Miliband later said, "a pathetic excuse". But it was enough for Cameron to make it through the session without humiliation. To the PM's charge that he was "chicken" when it comes to the Greens, Miliband reasonably replied that it was up to the broadcasters who they invite. But this sidestep, avoiding the direct question of whether he thinks the Greens should be included, allowed Cameron to score some points.

The Labour leader delivered the best line when he declared in his final question: "In the words of his heroine, Lady Thatcher, he is frit." But Cameron revealed his calculation when he responded by changing the subject to the economy: "He can't talk about unemployment because it's coming down. He can't talk about growth and the economy because it's going up. He can't talk about his energy price freeze because it's turned into a total joke. I have to say to him, Mr Speaker, the more time he and I can spend in a television studio and on television, the happier I will be. But please, if he's got any more questions left, ask a serious one." 

Cameron's accurate belief is that voters are largely uninterested in a process-centred row about the TV debates. As pollsters like to say, the issue lacks "salience". Few, if any, will change their votes based on whether or not Cameron takes part in TV debates. Scarred by the experience of 2010, when Nick Clegg stole his insurgent mantle, he has calculated that the political cost of avoiding the debates is lower than the cost of participating (and allowing Miliband and Nigel Farage to land easy hits on him). Today's PMQs showed that Cameron is relaxed about riding out this argument. 

Meanwhile, the Tories are now briefing that Cameron is prepared to take part in a five-way debate (the three main party leaders, Ukip and the Greens) and a head-to-head with Miliband, but not a three-way debate with the Labour leader and Clegg. The reason for this stance is easily identified: a debate between the two coalition leaders and Miliband would allow the latter to play the outsider - the role that so aided Clegg in 2010. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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