Will the Debates be a "Game-Changing" Moment?

by Alex Massie

As a general rule, Britain's political and media classes are too fond of importing anything and everything from American politics. This election is no different as both main parties try to emulate the successes of the Obama campaign. The biggest change, however, is the agreement to have a series of three leaders' debates.

Evidence from the United States suggests that such contests tend to confirm pre-existing trends, rather than sharply change the game. However, the US electorate is accustomed to televised debates; they remain a novelty in Britain and so it is quite possible that they will, this year anyway, have a bigger impact than might become customary in the future.

Tim Montgomerie, head of the Conservative grass-roots site ConservativeHome, lays out some of the reasons for opposing the debates here. They're cogent and not simply a question of partisan politics. Yes, the Prime Minister only agreed to the debates because of his lowly standing in the polls and, yes, Brown stands to benefit from the luxury of low expectations when it comes to the actual contests (though much will doubtless depend upon the exact format of the debates).

The biggest beneficiary of the debates, however, is likely to be Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats. Although there is no prospect of Clegg becoming Prime Minister (since his party attracts little more than 20% support) he will relish a rare opportunity of confronting Brown and Cameron on more or less equal terms. For once he won't be an afterthought.

Still, as I've suggested here and here, there's something depressing about having these contests at all. That's largely because it confirms and exacerbates the Presidentialisation of our politics, a cult of personality that sits ill with the parliamentary tradition.

A Brown vs Cameron contest is all very well and good but it turns the election into a contest between competing personality cults. That being so, far from strengthening parliament (a good idea!) it weakens it by giving the Prime Minister an even greater "mandate".

All this is perhaps inevitable and the debates are, in this sense, simply a recognition of the way the wind is blowing. Only a handful of voters will have the chance to vote for either Cameron or Brown but the debates will encourage all voters to ignore the competing claims of their local candidates and endorse instead the party, not the man (or woman). This is not the way to improve the quality of MPs.

In other words, whatever is useful (and entertaining) about the debates is countered by their drawbacks as we move towards the curious situation of electing a quasi-President via a parliamentary election. Britain will, of course and as is traditional, muddle through but the more Presidential politics becomes, so the case for rather more wide-ranging reforms becomes stronger.

But it does make one wonder what would happen if, hypothetically, Cameron or Brown were to "win" the debates but lose his seat even as their party won the election. Constitutionally, this would be of no great importance: the Queen would simply invite someone else to form a government that could command support from a majority of the House of Commons; politically, however, it might be a different matter as voters complained that they now had an "unelected" Prime Minister and a government that wouldn't quite be what any of them had voted for.

That won't happen this year but it could, as I say hypothetically, in some future election. So, even though its too late to complain about the cult of personality one should still be wary of it.