David Cameron's anxiety that the case for the Green Party be thoroughly aired in the coming election is very touching. Maybe we're back to the days of "hug a huskie." Or maybe the cynics are right and he's merely looking for any old excuse not to be confronted by the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, whose presentational charisma somewhat exceeds even his own smooth performances. If the debates do not take place because Cameron takes his bat home if the game is not to be played according to his liking, that will remove some of the fun from with election campaign. But it will also remove some of the potential harm.
The debates in the 2010 election attract viewers in their millions and thus, it is claimed, increased interest in politics. This interest was indeed reflected in a slight increase in turnout, to a not all that respectable 65.1% compared with a miserable 61.4% in 2005 and a disgraceful 59% in 2001. But I can't help feeling that the leaders' debates generate voyeurism in the manor of X-factor and the Big Brother House rather than a genuine interest in the policies presented.
True it is important to be able to judge the personality of someone who wants to be our prime minister and his or her performance in a debate is one way of doing this. But we must remember that our most successful post-war prime minister, Clement Attlee, would probably have fared very badly under the TV lights had they existed at the time. And the personalities of the other leading politicians contending to be in to be in the government are important, and the policies they advocate even more important..
If the 2010 pattern is followed then the three leaders' debates will be supplemented by one debate featuring the rival chancellors of the exchequer (and please, Mr Clegg, put Vince Cable up for this rather than Danny Alexander, for reasons that are pretty obvious to those of us who have seen and heard both perform). I would take this further and :
- add additional debates by the relevant party spokespersons on Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs including Defence, Social Security and Health, and Transport and Housing.
- cut the leaders' debates to two, one at the beginning of the series and one at the end.