One-on-one election debates are a standard part of US political lore, and have been ever since Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts squared up against Vice-President Richard Nixon in 1960. American voters expect to see them now, and, indeed, expect to see primary debates before the final run-off. In the UK, it is a much more recent addition to the general election schedule. John Major challenged Tony Blair in 1997 but Blair wasn’t game. The leaders’ debate first shot to the fore in 2010, when we saw Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg go head-to-head-to-head, famously giving us the phrase “I agree with Nick”. Then, in 2015, we carved up the various leaders in all sorts of permutations, in an election in which several parties were in play.
It is not clear what will happen in this election. The Prime Minister has said she will not participate in a multi-leader debate, as she prefers to be out in the country speaking to voters, but she has, as I understand it, indicated that she would be willing to subject herself to a question-and-answer session, moderated, presumably, by Paxman or a Dimbleby, to engage with the ordinary public. This is a sort of compromise, but will it work?
We know that Mrs May does not take advice from a wide circle. She relies very heavily on her husband, Philip, and then there are her joint Chiefs of Staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Beyond that, it seems a very closed circle. So has this tightly-knit cabal delivered good advice?
The argument in favour of shunning a debate, or debates, is that there is really very little for Mrs May to gain. She is the Prime Minister, she has inherent status and gravitas, and she has a pump-primed platform (or bully pulpit) any time she wants it. Lady Thatcher was fond of jetting off on international meetings around election time, because it emphasised that she was a statesman, a serious woman of business, striding above the petty politics of her opponents. Mrs May might choose to do the same, and already the rhetoric coming out of Downing Street is that she and only she can deliver strong leadership as we embark on Brexit negotiations.
Let us look at her opponents for a moment. Mr Corbyn is, I suspect, a busted flush; in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister has demonstrated her ability to best him in debate and she must have little to fear from that flank. Nicola Sturgeon is a different proposition. As First Minister, she has her own, more modest, platform: why, then, would Mrs May want to offer her another? Lastly, we come to Tim Farron. The Liberal Democrat leader pops up on television all the time clanging the bell for a revival for his party, which, personally, I think is deeply unlikely, and is certainly not borne out by the latest opinion polls. But the Richmond Park by-election was a nasty shock for the Conservatives, and, with the spectre of 1997 still hanging over them, the party hierarchy must worry that the polls will be wrong and there will be a yellow surge. Whether or not that is true, again, it is a strong argument against a debate. Mr Farron leads a party of nine Members of Parliament, fewer than the DUP, so why on earth would the PM want to provide him with a platform, a platform which would imply some degree of equality?
If you are cautious, then, as many have suggested that Mrs May is (her decision to call an election notwithstanding), why would you roll the dice on participating in a televised debate with two, three, four or however many other leaders?
There are reasons to doubt whether the Prime Minister’s decision might not be so sound after all. The greatest worry must be that the broadcasters will simply empty-chair her, and all of the other party leaders will have an hour of primetime television to talk about their competing policies, while the Conservative position is lost by default. That cannot be a good thing. All the psephological evidence suggests that a huge proportion of the electorate was influenced by the debates in 2015, and if you have no voice in that, you might lose out.
There is also the danger that Mrs May simply looks afraid to face up to her challengers. After all, she had to face down the Opposition parties in calling this snap election by asking them what they were scared of. They might reasonably turn that weapon back on her now if she declines to appear in a multi-leader debate. The electorate has, I think, an innate sense of someone running away from a fight (think of the famous incident of Roy Hattersley pulling out of Have I Got News For You and being replaced by a tub of lard).