The row over election debates smacks of unedifying false outrage

A glance through today’s headlines will show that David Cameron is on the proverbial naughty step for turning down a face-to-face debate with Ed Miliband. His ‘final offer’, according to Downing Street, is a single debate featuring the leaders of all the major parties.

Of course, the Prime Minister has quickly been accused of ducking the challenge and being unwilling to defend his government’s legacy. Such has been the vitriol, you could be forgiven for thinking the Prime Minister had announced he wasn’t answering another question between now and 7 May, and would instead be conducting his campaign through mime.

Aficionados of the West Wing will recall an episode in its final series that was almost entirely devoted to debate negotiations between the two presidential candidates. Yes, it was fiction – and yes, debates are an established part of political campaigning in the United States. But the point here is that difficulties in arranging election debates are far from unique to the UK. So we shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed when political leaders are at loggerheads from anything from the number of debates to their format and who takes part.

The likes of Lord Ashdown have a point when questioning why any party leader, including the Prime Minister, should be able to largely block plans for election debates. Ed Miliband is perfectly within his rights to claim the Prime Minister is “running scared.” But at the same time, let’s not pretend that the other parties are operating entirely to protect a democratic process. They are acting out of self-interest every bit as much as the Conservatives.

There’s a case that David Cameron and Ed Miliband should go head to head. They are, after all, the only two people likely to reside in Downing Street from 8 May. But why in the world should the Prime Minister concede such an advantage to his opponent? And is it reasonable, and even fair, to expect that Ed Miliband would be any more willing to step in the ring if the roles were reversed?

The Prime Minister has made no secret of the fact he’s not keen on debates, and appears especially disenchanted with the idea of a head-to-head with Mr Miliband. It’s hardly surprising – he’s been burned before, when Cleggmania swept Britain in 2010 as a result of election debates. And in the closest election in living memory, he’s no more likely to cede an advantage to Labour than Jose Mourinho is to voluntarily let his Chelsea team take to the field having given the opposition a two goal head start.

Mr Cameron is right in trying to make sure the election campaign is not all about the debates. They do wield excessive influence – effectively encapsulating the election in 90 minutes there is the risk of dumbing down the political discussion to a series of bland, meaningless sound bites that inform the electorate about as much as the latest episode of EastEnders. Where the Prime Minister’s arguments fall flat is the idea of a seven-way debate. It might sound good for democracy, but as Alistair Campbell said on the Today programme, it’ll like a political version of Family Fortunes. Indeed, that might be generous.