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.