The PM is preparing to debate... but tonight is NOT the night.

Written by George Pascoe Watson on 26 March 2015 in Opinion
David Cameron is getting ready for what he sees as the real showdown on April 30 when David Dimbleby grills the three main party leaders on the BBC.

Tonight's cross examination by the Queen of news, Sky's Kay Burley, and Jeremy Paxman will be tough. 

But the Premier and his entourage believe the sternest test will come in a month's time in a Question Time special just a week away from polling day which is certain to win the biggest audience.

However you look at it, the PM's communication director Craig Oliver deserves a medal for pulling off an extraordinary TV debate coup.

The former BBC and ITV News editor deftly deployed his intricate knowledge of the TV industry to make sure his skipper avoided a fate of potential political death.

Only the Prime Minister in the live TV debate has to answer for his actions. 

His rivals for the keys to number 10 merely have to stand and throw rocks.

Even if the PM - of whichever party - acquits themselves well, the viewer is left with the impression that their Premier is "guilty" of something.

Sure, Mr Cameron has had to endure weeks of accusations of running scared of a live TV debate with Labour and the LibDems or a head-to-head with Ed Miliband.

But Tory strategists rightly calculated it would be far, far worse to expose the PM to this format - a recipe for reputational disaster - than live with attacks from broadcasters and Labour for being chicken.

Thus Mr Oliver went into bat hard and has won a distinguished victory which will see four TV "events" which probably would have happened all along.

These are:

  • tonight's Paxo/Burley cross examination with a live audience. There will be questions from Paxman followed by the audience, chaired by the Sky TV anchor. Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband will face the music consecutively
  • a seven party panel including the Welsh nationalists and Greens which will effectively turn into a question and answer session rather than an opportunity to gang up on the Premier
  • a battle of the minnows involving the minor parties and - strangely - Mr Miliband but without the PM or deputy PM Nick Clegg
  • and the Question Time special featuring just Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg.

And it's the last of these that the PM has fixed his sights on as the one to ace.

That's not to say tonight's showdown doesn't matter. It matters very much - in the same way that any live TV appearance with Paxman and Burley matters.

These two seasoned inquisitors are at the top of their games. They have very different styles but each knows where to find a political jugular.

Yet the format is pretty straight forward for a Prime Minister or a potential Prime Minister.

Don't forget, no matter how much the TV companies dress it up, the General Election starting gun hasn't actually been fired and the public aren't yet engaged.

This will come next Monday or Tuesday when Mr Cameron goes to Buckingham Palace and asks The Queen to dissolve Parliament.

It will be just one week to go before polling day that the Question Time special is broadcast. 

Then the audience will be finely tuned. Voters in large numbers will tune in. This is the one that matters, according to no10 figures.

There is already emerging a clear message for Mr Cameron: the horror of a Labour-led minority government propped up unofficially by Alex Salmond's Tartan Army.

What could be worse to an English audience than the prospect of a weakened Prime Minister Miliband relying on a scarily left-wing bunch of rookie MPs hell-bent on lavishing voters north of the Border with southerner taxpayers' cash?

This is the message and it will be relentless.

A team of senior Conservatives have already been running the PM through his paces for tonight's (thurs) showdown and the other formats.

A good chunk of the Premier's diary is dedicated to rehearsing the lines and gripping the danger areas.

Not least of which will be the accusation that he's undermined his own authority by discussing the end of his term in office - triggering leadership speculation.

No10 figures are bullish. They point to opinion polls showing quite clearly that voters are intensely relaxed about his honest assessment that he won't go on beyond two terms. Assuming he has two terms.

Mr Cameron knows the polls are "soft". Many, many millions have yet to decide where to put the cross on polling day.

Minds will continue to be made up right up until the moment voters pull the curtain and their pencil hovers over the ballot paper.

Nothing can be left to chance, especially just a week to go Election Day.


George Pascoe Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor of The Sun.

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