Comment: Cameron has seriously dropped the ball on the TV debates

By Julia Hartley-Brewer

If, like millions of ordinary British voters, you've been wondering what on earth is really going on behind the scenes with the party leaders' TV debates, then wonder no more.

I have finally figured out what's happening. Remember last month's EastEnders 30th anniversary week-long special, complete with the live episodes broadcast to the nation? Well, this is clearly just more of the same.

The entire debate-about-the-debate furore is not in fact a reflection of the terrible state of our body politic. Instead, it is just one long extended live episode of the political satirical TV series, The Thick Of It.

Because that, it seems to me, is the only feasible explanation for the disastrous mess David Cameron has got himself into over the televised leaders' debates. Surely no experienced politician could possibly have managed to sink himself into such an embarrassing quagmire for any reason other than comic effect?

That said, I'm not sure even the talented scriptwriters of The Thick Of It could have come up with such an unlikely plot as the one unfolding before us right now.

After all, there is a perfectly good case to be made for Cameron to take part in the leaders' debates. For starters, he was the one who demanded them in 2010, when he was in opposition to Gordon Brown. Back then, he insisted they were vital to our democracy. So whether he agrees to do them again on moral or pragmatic grounds, he should do them.

Cameron is also usually a strong performer, despite his poor showing in the first debate of 2010 – plus he doesn't want to look like he's running scared of debating Miliband in the face of the Labour leader's invitation to debate him, Martini-style, "anytime, any place, anywhere".

On the other hand, there is an equally good case for Cameron not to agree to the debates. He has far more to lose and far less to gain than anyone else. He can also claim, quite truthfully, that there is no constitutional requirement on him, or any prime minister, to take part in TV debates. Tony Blair always refused to do them and anyway, we have parliamentary government – not a US-style presidential system.

But whichever side the prime minister came down on, there's no case what he has actually done. Cameron told everyone he wanted to do the debates, negotiated for months, changed his mind, put every possible obstacle in the way, tried to dictate who took part and when, and then refused to do them unless everyone did it his way. Ever the statesman, eh?

And bear in mind that this hasn't emerged years later in a special adviser's memoirs. It was all done, not behind the curtains or out of earshot, but in the full glare of the nation's TV cameras. And, amazingly, no-one at Downing Street has been sacked.

So, come on prime minister, it's time to come clean and admit it. You've been starring in a live special of a satirical TV show all along, haven't you?

Because if that's not the case, then No.10's stance on the leaders' TV debates is now beyond a joke.

Julia Hartley-Brewer is a journalist and broadcaster. She was previously a presenter on LBC radio and political editor of the Sunday Express. Click here to follow her on Twitter.

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