Cameron sidesteps live debate

“Scared. Arrogant. Cynical. Hypocritical. Cowardly. Calculated… Undemocratic.” It’s not a list of adjectives you’d want to be used to describe you if you were a party leader facing an election in less than 60 days’ time, says Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer.

Yet these are the ones sticking to the prime minister, David Cameron, over his refusal to appear in any TV debates “except the one he has condescended to offer” – one seven-party debate, held before the formal election campaign period on 30 March, before the full publication of manifestos.

The broadcasters, who so far are sticking to their guns, plan an ITV programme on 2 April with seven party leaders (six without Cameron); the same format on the BBC on 16 April; and a head-to-head debate on 30 April, broadcast by Channel 4 and Sky News.

However, says The Independent on Sunday, the BBC will “stop short of ‘empty chairing’” Cameron and may give him his own programme to “meet strict rules on impartiality during election campaigns”.

Cameron has “misjudged the balance of risk”, says Rachel Sylvester in The Times. His “final offer” reinforces the Tory stereotype of “high-handed ‘born to rule’ grandees”. It’s part of a “bigger problem” with the Tories’ “safety-first” campaign. Their main narrative is that the recovery will be put at risk by not voting Tory. So why, asks one cabinet minister, “would we deliberately walk into an event that might change that narrative”?

But the bigger risk may be a failure to inspire. The Tory poster urges voters to “stay on the road to a stronger recovery”, but there is no destination in sight. It is, in every sense, a “road to nowhere”. Voters want more.

Labour says Cameron has made a “self-immolating” mistake by refusing to take part in a head-to-head debate with Labour leader Ed Miliband. But pollsters think voters “will be largely unmoved”, says Elizabeth Rigby in the FT. Rick Nye of Populus says it has “barely moved the dial”.

Anthony Wells of YouGov said that“any minor damage from refusing to participate was outweighed by the bigger risk of putting Miliband on an equal footing with Cameron” – research with focus groups shows that if voters watch Miliband for five minutes and listen to his arguments, their opinion of him rises.

Cameron may be right in thinking this “tiswas” will soon be displaced by “business as usual”, but that’s “not quite the point”, says John Harris in The Guardian. Not only is he “brazenly” going back on his principles – he was a great advocate of the first TV debates, which 22 million tuned into, in 2010 – but he is “evading public scrutiny”.

The debates may not restore trust in politics, but they do at least ignite some “much-needed public interest”. That Cameron is acting out of self-interest should not surprise us, says Andrew Grice in The Independent, but sometimes politicians should be “forced to act for the public good, and this is such a moment”.

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