Theresa May has made clear she’s not going anywhere near the television studios to
debate with her fellow party leaders in the run up to the election.
So why doesn’t she fancy it? She’s got a 20 point lead, she’s risk averse, they’re just not
The real reason was revealed by one of her colleagues. Sir Eric Pickles told Sky News
there’s “nothing in it for her”.
But it’s not just about her.
Mrs May is a public servant, accountable to us.
Modern political process is opaque. The business of government isn’t done in Parliament,
it’s done behind closed doors.
Politicians are trusted less than estate agents, journalists and bankers, so voters need to
see them in action.
Senior Tory politicians argue they’ll be answering our questions as they travel around the
But we know what that looks like.
A series of hi-viz ’n’ helmet photo ops, with politicians wearily descending the steps of
newly painted battle buses, to press the flesh with bewildered builders; or at town hall
hustings where the more dedicated voters will sit for hours on childrens’ school chairs,
with nothing but a fish paste bap to keep them going.
But most of us won’t be at these events.
We want to make up our minds from the comfort of our homes, using our digital devices
and watching telly.
When the election debates were first mooted in 2010 negotiations took more than a year,
and the 2015 ones took months of very difficult talks to sort.
My brother, John McAndrew, represented Sky News in those talks and says the key this
time would be to keep it simple:
“What’s crucial is that time isn’t wasted negotiating complex and unnecessary rules
regarding things like applause, direct questions, interaction, sharing platforms, multiple
formats etc. Name a date, get them in a room, and press go.”
The BBC and ITV are reported to be planning debates, but the broadcasters are treading
carefully after the trickiness of 2015. The truth is broadcasters don’t have a lot of
leverage. It’s another round in the never-ending tussle as to who needs whom more – the
politicians or the broadcasters. They can try to persuade, cajole and appeal, but the
power of the ‘empty chair’ is strong.
Mrs May said herself this election is all about leadership.
Britain needs to see its political leaders in action head-to-head to make an informed
decision about who leads us through the Brexit process and out the other side.
The broadcasters should go ahead with leaders’ debates. And if Mrs May doesn’t fancy it,
so be it.
Kate McAndrew is a Senior Counsel at Cicero following 25 years in daily news