That old campaigning favourite made its first appearance of the 2015 General Election this week: an adult human dressed in a comedy, yellow chicken outfit. As Ofcom ruled that the Green Party do not have "major party status" their presence in the much debated debates is officially not compulsory (though of course, that does not mean they can't be involved). David Cameron seized on this judgment and ruled out taking part in any debates unless the Greens and their leader Natalie Bennett were included. This in itself has caused a significant deal of speculation as to why the Prime Minister is avoiding the debates and whether it’s riskier for him to give exposure to his rivals by doing the debates or to endure an oversized yellow chicken following him around for the next four months.
It is worth winding back the clock to 2010 when David Cameron, then in opposition, was particularly eager to debate an unpopular Prime Minister Gordon Brown, telling ITV News “I hope they (the debates) go some way to restore some of the faith and some of the trust into our politics because we badly need that once again in this country.” Even once the debates were over he seemed keen for them to remain a part of future campaigns, “I think these debates are here to stay. They clearly engage people in politics which is what we need.”
That enthusiasm now appears dampened, veiled in the cloak of "democracy" by appearing to be standing up for the right of the Green Party to be included. The public however, aren't convinced and half of voters (50%) believe he is simply using the Greens as way of avoiding a debate with the others. Indeed, 55% believe he is "acting cowardly".
Herein lies the political calculation made by Mr Cameron and his advisors: what will do the Prime Minister the most lasting damage: "chickening" out or potentially being pummelled in a televised debate. It is of course something we can't ever know the answer to, which makes it all the more fun to speculate on.
By refusing to take part (unless, he argues, Natalie Bennett is invited) David Cameron has clearly opened himself up to charges of cowardice. This line has traction, but Tory high command must have expected it. The calculation presumably being: get the story out of the way early and hope it has little cut-through with the public. By the time the campaign proper comes around everyone will have moved on and be focusing on more important issues at hand.
Mr Cameron evidently fears what would happen in a live debate with Ed Miliband, Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg. To make the decision not to participate in the knowledge that he will be mocked for it reveals the calculation that taking part would be even worse. Why would he fear such an encounter?
It may be that Mr Cameron has little confidence in his own debating skills, or at least that he won’t be able to live up to the expectations that because he is believed to be a superior communicator Mr Cameron has more to lose. Or it could be that Messrs Miliband and Farage as the oddest of odd couples would gang up on him and risk landing heavy blows on the reputation of the Prime Minister and his record in office. Or it could be that Mr Cameron fears that just as the Lib Dems benefited in 2010, so UKIP would be placed at an avoidable advantage this time around.
It is certainly true, as Nick Clegg proved in his debates with Nigel Farage, that the UKIP leader is a difficult opponent. Mr Farage spoke in a mix of vagaries, combative sound bites and dismissals of Mr Clegg. No matter how reasonable or "fact and figure based" the Deputy PM tried to be in response, Mr Farage's plain-speaking was difficult to oppose and he came out on top in both debates.
David Cameron will therefore fear that being attacked by both Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage, with possible interjections from his erstwhile Coalition partner, will make it almost impossible to fight back. Having Natalie Bennett on stage however, could possibly dilute that threat and will help leach votes from Labour to the Greens.
Debates very rarely produce a killer blow, however. The three 2010 debates didn't serve to finish anyone off. Even Gordon Brown survived them. Yet without them it's unlikely we would have seen Nick Clegg in a strong enough personal position to negotiate himself the role of Deputy Prime Minister despite his party actually losing seats in the General Election.
David Cameron is a good debater and generally performs well on TV. It's unlikely that he would suffer greatly from a televised debate. In not taking part however, he plays straight into the hands of Nigel Farage and UKIP. The recent rise of UKIP can in some part be put down to a large section of voters being fed-up with modern politics and politicians. Mr Farage draws in supporters because he is seen to be straight-talking, not locked away in the "Westminster-establishment" and certainly not shy about facing hostile debates.
Comparisons are made with previous decisions not to take part in debates, but this is different from any previous Election. In 2010 Mr Cameron could have got away with refusing to take part without damage. Now, though, the public expect debates. Refusing to take part in them reinforces the view that Westminster politicians don’t want to engage with voters, and neither UKIP nor the Greens will let Mr Cameron forget that.