Jon Craig: Can the PM really afford to be cool about TV debates?

Written by Jon Craig on 8 June 2016 in Opinion

David Cameron has survived his Sky News and ITV interrogations, but he is refusing to go head-to-head with a rival politician.

An hour or so before the 'Dave and Nige Show' on ITV, I was chatting to a very senior cabinet minister and a leading figure in the Remain campaign.

I was struck - surprised, in fact - by his optimism, given the clutch of opinion polls this week suggesting a shock win for Leave and the growing evidence that David Cameron could be lurching towards a career-ending defeat in the EU referendum on June 23.

The reason my informant was optimistic about the referendum result - I wouldn't go as far as to say confident - was that the Remain campaign's private polling, he claimed, tells a different story to the polls we read about in the newspapers or see on TV.

Really? I was sceptical and still am, although we learned after the general election last year to treat the published opinion polls with extreme caution.

The reason for this cabinet minister's optimism was that the Remain campaign's private polling is being done "face-to-face", as he put it, and not over the phone or on the internet.

Internet polling, he was claiming, is unreliable, because most of the people polled are "older and less educated" (his words, not mine) and have time on their hands to respond to internet pollsters. He also claimed that the Tories' private polling last year, unlike the published polls which suggested a hung Parliament after the general election, pointed to a majority for David Cameron and the Conservatives.

Why, then, an hour or two later, was the Prime Minister so nervy during his grilling by the ice-cool Julie Etchingham on ITV? So nervy, also, that earlier in the day he had called a hastily-arranged rooftop news conference to attack the Leave campaign.

Those close to David Cameron may claim to be remaining calm, as my private conversation with a top Tory suggested, but with about a fortnight to go before the referendum on June 23 the PM gives every impression of suffering from a severe bout of the jitters. That probably explains why he's taking part in so few TV interrogations during the campaign and has refused to take part in any head-to-head debates.

We political correspondents may report every claim and counter-claim and every insult hurled by both sides in this referendum campaign. But I suspect that for many voters - particularly the undecided - the TV programmes will be a major influence on whether they opt for Remain or Leave.

Mr Cameron's first TV grilling of the campaign, by Sky News political editor Faisal Islam and then by a studio audience chaired by the queen of afternoon TV, Kay Burley, must have been more uncomfortable for the PM than he was expecting.

My favourite moment of the whole referendum campaign so far was feisty Faisal's brilliant quip: "What comes first: World War Three or the global Brexit recession?"

And my second favourite was when audience member Soraya Bouazzaoui told Mr Cameron: "I'm an English literature student. I know waffling when I see it."

The Prime Minister will have been relieved to have survived his ITV interrogation without any horrors like that. His best line was probably his attack on the "little England of Nigel Farage".

The most memorable line from the UKIP leader, however, was probably telling a woman in the audience to "calm down". Well, at least he didn't call her "dear" or "love".

We should note, of course, that in the 2015 general election campaign Mr Cameron wouldn't debate with Mr Farage. This time he chose him as his TV opponent, though it still wasn't a head-to-head debate.

So the Vote Leave campaign have got the hump and want a debate between the PM and either Michael Gove - who performed pretty well on Sky News last Friday. Or Boris Johnson. That would be the same Boris Johnson who declared back in February when he decided to oppose the Prime Minister: "What I won't do is take part in loads of blooming TV debates against other members of my party."

No, Boris. Of course you won't. But isn't Boris, the very definition of "blond ambition", debating against Amber Rudd on ITV later this week and then against Ruth Davidson nearer polling day? I do believe he is.

One person we won't see in any TV debates is Jeremy Corbyn, whose lack of leadership in this campaign has left many shadow cabinet members in deep despair, particularly those representing inner-city constituencies in the north of England. They fear many Labour supporters will either stay at home on June 23 or be seduced by Nigel Farage's crude populism. Senior Labour MPs are also worried about a strong Leave vote in Wales too.

All of which makes the optimism of my cabinet confidant all the more surprising. But don't just take my word for it. The ace political number cruncher Robert (now Lord) Hayward tells me: "Unless something substantial changes in the remaining days of the Euro referendum campaign, the balance of probability is that the nation will vote to leave."

He believes the opinion polls are probably over-emphasising the Remain vote and agrees that Labour supporters have not been motivated to vote to stay in the EU. Only two things could change the outcome, he suggests: if turnout rises towards general election levels (unlikely, in my view) and if the message received by voters, particularly women and professionals, changes.

Which brings us back to the role of the TV programmes. If the Prime Minister and his closest associates start to doubt their private polling, perhaps we might see David Cameron offer to take part in TV debates in the final days of the campaign after all.  Bring it on!


About the author

Jon Craig is chief political correspondent at Sky News.

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