Prime Minister David Cameron will face off against his six main political rivals later tonight in the first TV debate of Britain’s national election campaign, hoping the format will allow him to cast himself as a statesman against bickering wannbes.
The contest comes before an unusually close election on May 7 in which neither Cameron’s Conservatives nor Ed Miliband’s Labour Party have a clear lead, leaving the stewardship of Britain’s $2.8 trillion economy in the balance.
The debate, due to be held in a former pie factory near the northern city of Manchester, puts leaders of fringe parties like the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the left-wing Green Party on an equal footing with the Conservatives and Labour, who have dominated British politics for decades.
Leaders of nationalist parties from Scotland and Wales and Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the junior party in the country’s coalition, complete the lineup.
Cameron, whose personal ratings are higher than those of his rivals, carries bitter memories of the first televised election debates in 2010. Over the course of three such debates, strong performances by Clegg helped deprive the Conservatives of an outright victory.
“There’s a reason why Cameron was very opposed to having these debates, partly because he thought it distorted the campaign last time, but also because he’s the man with everything to lose,” said one pollster.
Cameron successfully resisted pressure to take part in a head-to-head debate with Labour leader Miliband, not wanting to hand his main rival a chance to improve his low personal ratings.
Nor will he take part in a second TV debate next week between the five parties outside the coalition government.
But he and Miliband were last week subjected to separate but back-to-back question and answer sessions on TV.
Cameron was found in a snap poll to have won the first television event of the campaign on March 26, which saw the prime minister and Miliband interviewed by veteran news anchor Jeremy Paxman and asked questions by a studio audience. Surveys showed that the polls after the debates and subsequent media coverage in 2010 had more of an effect on the campaign than the broadcasts themselves, ComRes’s Hawkins said.
“They had a huge impact because of the post-match analysis,” he said. “You don’t have to watch a debate to be affected by it. Simply switching on the TV news and seeing that someone won and someone lost makes a difference; it reinforces perceptions about the leaders.”
The 2010 debates boosted Clegg’s profile and the Liberal Democrats’ poll ratings, though their support slipped back by election day.
The party leaders have been taking time out of campaigning to prepare for the debate, with Ed Miliband bringing in Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications, to help coach him and Stewart Wood, one of his closest advisers, playing the role of Clegg in rehearsals.
Farage, who styles himself as being outside the political establishment, has been preparing “rigorously,” UKIP’s economy spokesman, Patrick O’Flynn, told reporters Wednesday.
The format for Thursday’s debate, which will give each leader just 60 seconds to respond to a question, as well as the chance to make opening and closing remarks, is likely to make for a disjointed dialogue, limiting the potential for Cameron’s rivals to hold him to account.
The order that each will make their opening and closing statements has also been determined by drawing lots.
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett will be the first speaker of the night, and Tory Prime Minister David Cameron will be given the final word.
The 200-strong audience has been specially chosen by polling company ICM to be broadly representative of the UK, and is politically balanced.
Around 80% will be made up of voters who have expressed a voting intention, while 20% are “undecided”.
“The party that can get out the pithiest quotes, the best one liners, and gets their point across in the most succinct way stands the most to gain from the format we’ve got,” one pollster said.