Ahead of the 2010 general election, when the first televised debates took place, there were mixed views on the merits of the public being able to watch the party leaders take each other on head-to-head.
“We don’t have a presidential system,” said some.
“It will divert attention from the real issues,” claimed others.
Ultimately, an agreement was reached – driven by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s readiness to contrast themselves with the dour perception of Gordon Brown, combined with Brown seeking an opportunity to showcase his undoubted intelligence and boost flagging poll ratings.
The debates were widely considered a success – raising awareness and invigorating the campaign – and most assumed that they would become a fixture of general elections to follow.
Whilst this has been the case so far – despite variations on format – there is a danger that the debates simply fall off the schedule.
In 2015, Cameron displayed reluctance – in stark comparison to the eagerness he exhibited five years earlier. This was largely due to the fact that, as the incumbent, he had more to lose from a televised debate.
In the end, he did participate in one seven-way debate with fellow party leaders, as well as a one-on-one interview with Jeremy Paxman, and a special edition of Question Time.
However, this was only after protracted negotiations and the very real prospect that either the debates would not happen at all, or Cameron would be “empty-chaired”.
This time around, Theresa May did not just display reluctance but flat out refused to take part. She claimed that this was due to her wish to focus her efforts on meeting voters at events and on the doorsteps across the country – a notion that is somewhat undermined by reports of tightly controlled events filled with Conservative activists, and where journalists are required to pre-submit questions.
It’s fairly clear why May is keen to avoid debates. Whilst she has cultivated a reputation as trustworthy, and an experienced and safe pair of hands, she does not cope well in situations where she is forced to think on her feet and respond to unexpected questions. This was all too clear in appearances on The Andrew Marr Show and Peston on Sunday earlier this month, where she stuck religiously to agreed lines and delivered rehearsed sound bites – which Andrew Marr himself dubbed “robotic”.
Even her joint appearance with husband Philip on The One Show, designed to project the Prime Minister’s personal side, seemed to be an uncomfortable experience.
As things currently stand, the BBC has agreed to host a debate with senior figures from the seven main parties – not necessarily the leaders. This raises an interesting decision for the Prime Minister, whose messaging has focussed on the strength of her personal brand with barely a mention of the Conservative Party on campaign material.
There is also a question surrounding who the Conservatives field in the debate, if not May. The person would have to be senior enough to carry weight, trusted by the Prime Minister to stay on message, and appealing to the wider electorate. I can think of many cabinet ministers who tick two of those boxes but no one who meets all three springs to mind.
May has agreed to be included in the Question Time leader specials, where she will take questions from the audience but not debate directly with her rivals. However, she still faces the prospect of being “empty-chaired” in the other debate hosted by ITV.
In ordinary circumstances, non-participation carries significant risks. You gift the opposition airtime with little recourse to respond to the punches that inevitably come your way, whilst also carrying the label of “being scared”.
The thing is, ordinary circumstances seems like such a long time ago. And if they’re not insisted upon by press and public, televised debates risk going the same way…
Adam Shaw is a Senior Associate at Charlotte Street Partners. After graduating from the University of Aberdeen in 2013 with a degree in International Relations and Hispanic Studies, Adam moved to London and spent three years with a City-based public relations consultancy where he advised a range of clients in the financial services industry. He joined the team in September 2016. He can be contacted at email@example.com