Theresa May's decision not to do TV debates derided by opponents
U.K. broadcasters considering airing debates — with or without the Conservative leader
Twenty-four hours after announcing a spring election no one saw coming, Theresa May finds herself in the eye of a storm that could have been avoided. The British prime minister announced Wednesday she plans to skip any live televised debates ahead of the June 8 vote.
Opposition parties have seized on it as the first major fumble of the campaign.
"We won't be doing the television debates," May, the Conservative leader, said matter-of-factly in a live BBC morning radio interview. "I believe in campaigns where politicians actually get out and about and meet the voters. It's what I've always believed in, it's what I still believe in and I still do it."
Although her pitch harkened back to simpler times, the idea wouldn't have appeared unusual in the U.K. until recent years. The first British leaders' debate on live TV wasn't held until 2010. That's 42 years after Canadians in their living rooms first watched then-new prime minister Pierre Trudeau defend his party's record, facing other leaders in a live broadcast.
Debates held in the past two British election campaigns, however, were viewed by millions, making them must-see TV for voters and must-attend events for leaders.
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"You can't say an election is part of a liberal democracy and then refuse to debate," said Natalie Fenton, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy at Goldsmiths, University of London. More Britons get their news from TV than any other platform, Fenton added.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called the move "rather strange."
"Elections and democracy are about public debate," he wrote on social media. "I say to Theresa May, who said this election was about leadership: come on and show some."
Scotland's first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, dared broadcasters to hold debates with an empty chair on stage.
On with the show
That odd scenario now seems plausible. By the afternoon, private broadcaster ITV announced it would hold a debate with or without the Tory leader.
The BBC suggested it could follow suit, with its head of newsgathering, Jonathan Munro telling the Daily Telegraph he did "not want to get in a position where any party leader stops us doing a program that we think is in the public interest."
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The opposition again piled on the pressure in the House of Commons during Prime Minister's Question Time.
Corbyn said it demonstrated May can't be trusted. "She says it's about leadership, yet is refusing to defend her record in television debates."
Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson called it "unsustainable in the 21st century" to skip the debates.
"The notion that the U.K. prime minister might be 'empty-chaired' because she's not prepared to stand up for her arguments is just not sustainable."
Although unpopular, observers consider May's decision to be a political calculation as she holds a roughly 20-point lead in the polls.
"I think she's taken a judgment that she stands to lose more in doing them than she does in not doing them and she's probably right," said Natalie Fenton, at Goldsmiths, University of London. "I don't think she'd fare well."
May's predecessor, David Cameron, spent his spare time as an Oxford student at the debating society. Basking in the spotlight, his debate performances as party leader in 2010 and 2015 helped the Conservatives increase their seat count.
He led the Remain campaign in the EU referendum as its highest-profile spokesperson, while May avoided most chances to speak forcefully in favour or against Brexit (officially, she campaigned to remain and is now the prime minister who's leading the country out of the EU).
The test will come in seven weeks — whether Britons remember this controversy or choose to vote on issues such as Brexit, health care or education. Currently in line to form a beefed-up majority government, May's ready to cut any losses from the debate debacle.