Courage is the trait most revered by political leaders; a key part of being a leader is being fearless in the face of enemies or in a time of national crisis. Leadership debates give contenders a chance to show their statesman-like qualities, or perhaps the reverse.
Recent ructions over the planned TV debates, in which Prime Minister David Cameron has kyboshed a head-to-head TV debate with Labour Leader Ed Miliband and any other debates in favour of one all-party showdown, have given opposition parties the ammunition to question Cameron’s courage.
So far, the Conservative Party has relied on a public perception that David Cameron is a strong leader, taking every opportunity to refer to Ed Miliband as ‘weak’. Personal ratings reflect this; an Opinium/Observer poll in February showed that 41% of the voting population approved of Cameron’s leadership, with Miliband on just 23%. Head-to-head, Cameron’s popularity has out-stripped his party’s, Miliband the reverse.
However, Cameron’s manoeuvrings over the TV debates may put this in jeopardy, as all parties have referred to him as “chicken”, “running scared” or “cowering” from the challenge. As debates on debates started, Cameron used his influence to score a tactical campaign win over Miliband. By agreeing to debates involving all political leaders, Cameron took the chance to muddy Labour’s messaging. Instead of being able to hear from Miliband at length, the public would merely get a snapshot as seven party leaders vied for air time.
Tactically, this made sense. Cameron, as a constant presence on TV screens, has more to lose from the TV debates, as other leaders get a chance to convey their messages; think Nick Clegg’s rise in 2010.
However, Cameron’s decision to veto a planned head-to-head with Miliband, planned for the end of April after two seven-way debates, is a mistake. Come May, after contracted and potentially painful coalition negotiations, Cameron or Miliband will become Prime Minister. Public desire for a one-to-one debate between the would-be prime ministers is clear.
Cameron has taken a tactical gamble that has actually hurt his own brand. Pushing for a seven way debate could conceivably be viewed as altruism; a desire for other parties to get a fair hearing. Ducking a head-to-head with Miliband, however, whilst eschewing any further debates, makes Cameron look weak.
This undermines the Conservative’s greatest strength, a grudging public acceptance that he is a strong leader able to make the right decisions, whilst damaging one of their key lines – ‘Ed Miliband is a weak leader who would make a weak prime minister’.
Boxed in, Cameron has little room to row back without looking weak; parties can charge him with being weak in avoiding TV debates, but conversely he could be charged as being weak for then conceding to them. That’s Cameron’s courage conundrum. A victory against the broadcasters, in some small way, is the only way out now.
Courage is remembered in leaders, and is something evoked by them – both JFK and Gordon Brown wrote books about it. Cameron’s PMQ scripts for the remainder of March attacking Miliband’s weakness may have to be rewritten, or perhaps just plagiarised by the Official Opposition.
Miliband’s script has already been tested – “I think what the public will not tolerate is a prime minister who is running away from them (the debates), running away from his record and running away from a face-to-face debate with me that he said he wanted and the public deserve.” I agree with Ed.