DAVID Cameron is facing growing pressure not to dodge televised leaders’ debates in the run-up to the general election, with senior figures in his own party joining opposition calls for him to take part.
Labour and Ukip have accused the Prime Minister of “running scared” of televised debates after he ruled out taking part if Green Party leader Natalie Bennett is left out of the process ahead of the 7 May election.
Mr Cameron has insisted that the format is not fair because it includes Ukip leader Nigel Farage, but excludes the Greens. However, Mr Cameron was warned by Conservative grandees that a failure to take part in the TV debates, which were held for the first time at the 2010 election, would damage the party’s campaign.
Conservative backbencher David Davis, who challenged Mr Cameron for the leadership in 2005, said attempting to avoid TV debates “may be right tactically” but was not realistic.
Mr Davis – a former Conservative Party chairman – said Mr Cameron would face irresistible pressure to agree a debate, as he cited the example of the televised clash between Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Mr Farage last year.
He said: “It’s unavoidable. They’ve got to have the debate. It will happen, in an internet age. The broadcasters will then be able to cover that, just as they did with Farage versus Clegg.”
Mr Cameron took on Mr Clegg and Labour prime minister Gordon Brown in the UK’s first ever general election leaders’ debates in 2010, which the Liberal Democrat leader was widely regarded to have won. Some Conservatives have blamed the debates for denying the party an overall majority.
Former Conservative chairman Lord Tebbit has warned voters will think Mr Cameron is “frit”, or frightened, if he dodges the live debates.
Lord Tebbit, who ran the Conservative campaign at the 1987 general election, warned that other parties would take advantage of Mr Cameron’s failure to take part by sowing doubts in voters’ minds about the reasons for his non-appearance.
Using the word “frit”, which was famously employed by Margaret Thatcher, he said: “I don’t think it is going to improve his image. I think the public will take the view that he is frit.
“And anyway, the public enjoy these confrontations. It is obviously going to be the most awful election campaign that anyone can remember, so to rob it even of this little bit of show, I think, would not be particularly pleasing to the public.
“It would certainly provide the opportunity for the other parties to say, ‘What is wrong with him? Why doesn’t he want to do it?’. And for the more sophisticated audience, they will whisper quietly that the reason is that he bungled it in 2010.”
Labour leader Ed Miliband said broadcasters should “empty-chair” Mr Cameron if he failed to agree to the clashes.
Mr Miliband said: “He is running scared of these debates. I want these debates to happen, I think they should happen with David Cameron or without David Cameron.
“If an empty chair represents David Cameron in these debates, so be it.”