A game of cat and mouse in London

9.03.2015 Wojciech Pawlus

While Poland looks out for the inexorably approaching presidential election, in the UK everyone awaits the “general election”, or simply the parliamentary election. The term “general election” indicates, however, the huge importance the British attach to what takes place every five years and, in their opinion, is the only significant festival of democracy in the country. In contrast to the Poles, they are not in a position to choose their head of state. Polish media recently mentioned that President Komorowski will not participate in a TV debate before the first round of elections. He argues that the custom is for it to take place before an eventual second round. If it were not for the huge public support enjoyed by Komorowski and a good chance that the second round of the election will not happen, then probably the attitude of the incumbent president would have met with much greater disapproval. It just so happens that in London a similar situation pertaining to Prime Minister David Cameron occurred. It sparked a storm and perhaps could cost the British leader his position.

Everything indicates that the leader of the Conservatives avoids large political confrontation in the run up the coming vote. In spite of the appeals of the largest TV stations, Prime Minister’s Office at Downing Street refused to organise a direct debate with the leader of the opposition and Labour Party Ed Miliband. In recent years an exchange of views between the major parties of the United Kingdom has always occurred just before the elections. It is no wonder that Cameron’s decision sparked outrage of even his coalition partner, the Liberal Democratic Party. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has suggested his own participation in place of Cameron.[1] The opposition, in turn, decided to hammer the premiere. Labour emphasise that in 2010 it was Cameron who was the biggest supporter of a TV duel. “It’s pathetic to look five years later, as he’s writhing in torment, in order to avoid a debate at all costs,” said the head of the Labour Party’s communications Alistair Campbell. Some less sophisticated comments also appear, alleging the head of government’s arrogance, lack of dignity, accusing him of not showing respect to political opponents, and finally cowardice. Therefore, the question which arises is what effect this decision is going to get Cameron?

Conservative party strategists fear that a direct duel between the Prime Minister and Miliband can raise the ratings of the latter and they are not currently that high. Despite the fact that most polls predict a narrow electoral win for the Labour Party, it is an expression of the confidence the voters place in its programme and not a result of Miliband’s charisma. He is not considered to be a politician of great stature. The British left is still struggling to recover from the crisis which followed Gordon Brown’s government, not to mention returning to form it enjoyed during the period of Tony Blair’s leadership. Cameron’s gambit is thus aimed at bypassing issues which are important for Labour, such as health care reform, while at the same time denying it the necessary room for maneuver. Hence, as early as January, the Downing Street suggested that the Prime Minister might not take part in a TV debate, if it does not include some smaller parties having MPs in the House of Commons. The television broadcasters reacted by suggesting a series format such as “7: 7: 2”, but this would ultimately lead to the final duel between the two largest groups. It is not the sort of solution the Conservatives are placing their bets on.

What they do want is a debate with Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party. Cameron is in fact ready to “steal” a lot of UKIP’s key campaign points and convert them into his own. The parties have a similar electorate, but UKIP has been recently steadier in gaining popularity due to a more radical stance than that of the government. While, for this reason, the Prime Minister’s party will definitely not hold on to the theme of immigration, it will base its campaign on the issues of education, the economy, or the creation of new jobs. As a politician of the European establishment, Cameron cannot go too far in restricting migration to the United Kingdom. What he can show is that a traditional party, like the Tories, guarantees predictable economic development. During a large debate with multiple parties, including nationally insignificant Welsh and Scottish groups, Cameron can clearly emphasise his status and experience in comparison to the radical option. In a direct duel with Miliband it will no longer be so. Therefore, the Prime Minister’s Office declared its offer for a debate of “at least seven parties” as final and permanent.

The ongoing scandal of the pre-election debate resembles a game of cat and mouse, a constant battle for blows, in which at first everyone chases each another, only to flee from the arguments of the opponent in the end. This is best reflected in the exchange between Cameron and Miliband during a session of the parliament. The confident leader of the Labour Party threw: “I will be at that debate – will you be at that debate?”. The Prime Minister replied,

“we are having a debate now and you can’t talk about the economy, you can’t talk about jobs, you can’t talk about living standards, you can’t talk about what we have done for our economy. The reason is you have no leadership whatsoever”. In an instant, the initiative turned in favour of Cameron.

Ultimately, however, it seems that the Conservative Party misjudged its capabilities in the confrontation with not so much the opposition, but the representatives of the “fifth power”. The Consortium of broadcasters, composed of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky, have already announced that the debates will be held in the format proposed by them. “The broadcasters would like the Prime Minister to reconsider taking part in all of these debates” officials representing the TV stations said. David Cameron is now in a very difficult situation and, as often in politics, there is no easy way out. He will have to either expose his actions to criticism of the opposition, or undermine the status of the office he holds by ignoring the biggest British media and the general public. The British politics is currently extremely unstable, and the results of the May election may complicate the situation even further. If the TV debate were to create an actual leader of the polls, it would not at all be a bad thing for the United Kingdom. The country requires firm leadership in these turbulent times.







[1] In 2010 the polls pointed to Clegg as the victor of the then pre-election televised debate