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Theresa May regards television debates an intrusion into Britain’s real democratic process

The Prime Minister has refused to take part in a TV debate. What else will she throw out? Could Prime Minister's Questions be the next accountability casualty?

lead Theresa May going to Prime Ministers Questions and to her statement on her letter triggering Article 50. Number 10/Flickr. Some rights reserved. In the United States, anyone seeking the office of president knows that while they are not constitutionally mandated to appear in televised debates, even a hint of refusal would be de facto political suicide and regarded as the highest form of contempt for the audience, namely, the American electorate.

The first Kennedy-Nixon shoot-out in 1960 drew an audience of 66 million. The opening 2016 Trump-Clinton debate was watched by 84 million and millions more on streaming platforms. The reach and impact of these televised gladiatorial contests, however imperfect, are now seen as a necessary democratic link between the prize of the kingdom of Washington DC and would-be rulers.

Yet, in the United Kingdom, despite the half-century stand-off between broadcasters and politicians ending in 2010 with the first live televised election debate, with the exercise repeated again in 2015, Theresa May has said ‘no’ to any live TV contest that would see her battle Jeremy Corbyn, Tim Farron, Nicola Sturgeon or any other party leader. 

US broadcasters may over-romanticise television and its relationship with politics. Nevertheless, its ability over the last 50 years to generate and stimulate political debate, means that on accountability alone, television has become a pillar of Capitol Hill’s democratic process. Politics is the business of DC and DC is under threat from Donald Trump’s inept, imbecilic administration. His serial attacks on the major networks’ credentials mirrors the fightback since his election.

Television in the UK is not under political attack. Public service remits, good regulatory clarity, and an evolved, symbiotic culture between performer-politicians and a wide spectrum of programming that accommodates both brief and longer-form debate, means TV politics is regarded as robust and democratically healthy.

The Prime Minister's saying “we won’t be doing television debates” – adding that she “believes in campaigns where politicians actually get out and meet with voters” – is therefore either a denial of television’s ability to deliver a sentient audience of voters (which is luddite nonsense) or it is a leading politician saying she alone will determine what accountability looks like.

May’s decision to hide and avoid the inconvenience of a live broadcast debate suggests a dangerous disregard for scrutiny unlikely to end with just the shredding of a few invites from the BBC, ITV and Sky. Others forms of traditional political accountability are likely to feature in Downing Street’s post-election assessment of what is and isn’t needed.

May’s decision to hide and avoid the inconvenience of a live broadcast debate, suggests a dangerous disregard for scrutiny unlikely to end with just the shredding of a few invites from the BBC, ITV and Sky. 

On the advice of the political strategist, Lynton Crosby, May’s election campaign is intended to be risk-averse, safe; the objective is a de-militarised zone free of curious correspondents, her opponents, and any over-inquisitive non-Tory public. Scrutiny and accountability are not in Crosby’s dictionary. His past successes as a back-room Robespierre means May listens to him. She turned down TV invitations before they were issued; she quickly learned the election Haiku prepared for her, now repeating mantra-like “strong and stable leadership/coalition of chaos”.

Her stump speeches, reserved for selected Tory-faithful, depict Corbyn in Downing Street as Dracula in a blood bank. And there is every indication that the Conservative manifesto will be short on detail, light on policy and vague on May’s vision of post-Brexit Britain.

Election events held in workplaces where everyone has already gone home, or safe rallies where the audience has been strip-searched for dangerous thoughts or questions, do nothing to dispel worries that the signature of the 2017 general election is silence, convenient silence.

Corbyn’s far-left playbook advocates a similar strategy of the leader operating in similar comfort zones. So the criticism of ‘silence’ is not directed solely at May. The Labour leader initially accused May of “running scared”. The refusal to take part in TV debates, he said, meant she had failed in her “duty to democracy.” Yet a few days later Corbyn announced he too would not take part in debates that had been down-graded to opposition-only. 

May and Corbyn are merely narrow-casting to their converted, operating in like-minded cocoons of unchallenged facts. 

A series of live televised political debates, while not a panacea for an uncertain and ill-defined election, nevertheless would be an opportunity to enliven and publicly dissect core issues. May and Corbyn are merely narrow-casting to their converted, operating in like-minded cocoons of unchallenged facts. Televised debate, even if too stiff, or too controlled, at least offers the opportunity of observing a would-be leader under fire – before you tick the ballot box.

In 2010, 10.3 million people tuned into the first “I’m with Nick” debate, where Nick Clegg, then leader of the Liberal Democrats found a new audience listening to him, including David Cameron and Gordon Brown. Millions tuned into the live TV debates five years later, with 38 percent stating they had been “influenced” by what they heard.

Theresa May, by refusing the broadcasters’ invitations, shows contempt for one of the most basic rights in a democracy – accountability. 

If polls are correct, or just slightly wrong, the Prime Minister will return to the dispatch box after June 8 to face decimated opposition benches. The forecast massacre of Labour MPs will come 20 years after Tony Blair found himself with the power that comes with a majority of 179, the result of a Tory massacre.

One of Blair’s first announcements, taken without any parliamentary consultation, was to shift the twice-weekly sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions at 3.15pm, to a once-a-week bout at noon on Wednesdays. Alistair Campbell, Blair’s communications and strategy chief, has insisted the change was pushed through as a matter of efficiency, claiming it saved his boss a day-and-a-half in preparation. Many MPs, not all of them Tories, claimed the shift lessened the accountability of the PM in the Commons.

Theresa May, by refusing the broadcasters’ invitations, shows contempt for one of the most basic rights in a democracy – accountability.

While Corbyn is a routine disaster at PMQs, May is better, though no dispatch box star. This perhaps suggests that a televised debate would be a no-brainer, even if the risk-averse Crosby thought a landslide was more than enough, and that Corbyn’s only chance was sympathy for the wounded.

More than half a century of presidential TV debates in the United States gives them the status of an entrenched institution. Two general elections worth of similar debates in the UK? Even without the stamp of tradition, does this mean May had the right to refuse?

If her refusal is based solely on her own definition of accountability, and on how she wants to interact with the electorate, does she therefore have the right, as Blair did, to tinker with PMQs, to change it, or lessen its democratic importance? If she doesn’t like PMQs and wants to communicate with parliament on her terms, could she refuse to turn up, delegate authority to other ministers, dismiss it as she dismissed the TV debates? 

If May's refusal is based solely on her own definition of accountability, does she therefore have the right, as Blair did, to tinker with PMQs, to change it, or lessen its democratic importance?

PMQs is just a constitutional convention. Prime ministers were once expected to answer questions without notice like any other minister. That convention was shifted in 1881 to help an aged William Gladstone. In 1953, it was agreed that questions for Winston Churchill would be arranged for Tuesdays and Thursdays. Harold Macmillan changed it to two fixed sessions in 1961 – and prime ministers since then have mostly hated the ordeal it represents. Macmillan said the prospect of PMQs made him feel “physically sick”. Jim Callaghan thought it a “complete waste of time”.

The Hansard Society examined public attitudes to PMQs in 2014 and found it was regarded as “pointless”, “noisy” and “over the top”. A third of those questioned said it “put them off politics” and few thought MPs behaved professionally.

If Theresa May doesn’t feel comfortable with public scrutiny, then PMQs may go the same way as televised debates. The Hansard Society have given her the ammunition and the excuse. Victory in June, achieved without the electorate knowing exactly what she stands for, means accountability could become an irregular gift of Number 10. What a Prime Minister with a massive majority doesn’t like, won’t happen.

About the author

James Cusick was, until recently, the political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. 

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