Is Cameron Chicken? The Great UK Election Debate Debate

david_cameron_3-13-15-1 Prime Minister David Cameron takes questions from apprentices during a visit to BAE Systems, in Preston, yesterday. (Press Association via AP Images)

While presidential debates are a fixture of the American political scene, and the idea of a candidate refusing to take part in them is pretty much unthinkable, televised encounters between party leaders in the UK are a novelty. The first debate only took place in Britain in 2010, and their future is already uncertain. Negotiations over proposed debates in the run-up to the May 7th general election have descended into a row between politicians, and between the governing Conservative party and the media.

David Cameron is refusing to take part in a head-to-head debate with Labour opposition leader Ed Miliband, prompting Miliband to call Cameron a “chicken” who’s “running scared of the British people.” Broadcasters have threatened to press ahead with that debate, and with two more that would also include the leaders of other parties, and to "empty chair" Cameron if he doesn’t participate. The row follows months of wrangling between broadcasters and party strategists over the timing and format of the debates.

Cameron has always maintained he won’t take part in any debates during the period of the official election campaign, which will commence when Parliament is dissolved on March 30, claiming they would be a sideshow that would distract from "real" campaigning. He has agreed to take part in one debate before then, with Miliband, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, UKIP leader Nigel Farage and the leaders of the Green Party and Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

While Cameron isn’t "running scared" – the Conservatives are slightly ahead of or tied with Labour in most polls, and can point to falling unemployment and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies – he’s certainly open to charges of hypocrisy. As opposition leader in 2010 he threw down the debate gauntlet to Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and mocked Brown mercilessly for his initial reluctance to take part.

But Cameron isn’t stupid, and he believes he has little to gain by debating Miliband, and much to lose. While Britain’s economy has recovered under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, the Tories remain vulnerable to the kind of emotive, substance-free attacks on their austerity policies, and on issues such as healthcare, in which Miliband specializes, and for which a TV debate would provide the ideal forum.

Cameron also has a point about the debates being a distraction. In 2010 they produced a great deal of heat but very little light -- although they did move the polls in favor of the Lib Dems, Britain’s proverbial protest party, after Clegg took advantage of his relative obscurity to portray himself as the pragmatic outsider who would put an end to the Conservative-Labour duopoly.