As we get to the hot phase of the Tory leadership contest, it’s also time for a revisiting of that hardy perennial: TV debates. At every major political moment of recent decades there have been calls for such events, together with deep suspicion about them. Indeed, the fact that this is even still an issue highlights how little progress has been made on this front.
The reason for the uncertainty comes down to an ambivalence about the weights of the costs and benefits of being given such a platform.
At the top of the pro column comes exposure. There is still no other political space that gives nearly so much of it to its participants. It’s all well a good to get a big crowd for a speech in a hall, or even to stand up in the Commons, but neither of those reach an audience orders of magnitude bigger, nor do they provide the same sense of intimacy. Put differently, it’s the only way to get into the living rooms of potentially millions of households and make your case.
And because of the nature of such things, TV debates are very egalitarian: all the participants get equal time and equal treatment, not least because the TV company doesn’t want to be accused of favouritism.
All of which explains the draw of the format to those not in the lead in the whatever contest it might be. Maybe your name isn’t so well known, maybe you’re many points behind in the polls: no matter, because you’re now presented as being on a par with the front-runner.
The apotheosis (since we should all be brushing up on our classical educations) of this was the 2010 general election debates, where the Liberal Democrat leader made hay of his opportunities: “I agree with Nick [Clegg]” became a sharp new focus of the campaign and contributed to the party’s strong showing in the final vote, and thus to their entry into the governing coalition.
The effect did not last long, but long enough to do the job required and, ironically, to make everyone else very anxious about repeating the exercise.
Levelling the playing field is thus simultaneously the greatest strength and weakness of TV debates, and well explains why Boris Johnson was a no-show on Channel 4’s opening debate on Sunday. If you’re so clearly ahead without appearing on TV, why take the risk?
But this raises the obvious question of why he is going to be on the BBC debate on Tuesday.
And this is the real bear-trap.
The conventions of the debate around TV debates is that those who don’t want to appear on them are afraid: afraid of saying something silly, afraid of being shown up by others, afraid of having a melt-down. Even if you get your message right, then your image might suffer in the comparison (just as it did for Nixon in the very first TV debates with Kennedy).
It’s a cheap shot, but it gets repeated because it works. And on this specific occasion it works particularly well, for two reasons.
The candidate-specific reason is Johnson’s reputation as a loose cannon. Given that his team have kept him away from all manner of public appearances until now in the campaign, it’s been clear that the feeling has been it is better for them to sell the image of Johnson-as-leader for him, rather than let him remind everyone of the irritating ticks. Even at his launch event, those coming ‘for the lolz’ found only a candidate on his Sunday best.
However, at some point a would-be leader has to demonstrate their leadership, to show they can stand up and represent. And that moment is now for Johnson, as the contest narrows sharply and his likely opponent emerges from the scrum (because we should also brush up on our sporting analogies). It’s one thing to show you are above such things, quite another to look too much as if de haut en bas (‘in a condescending manner’ – because we also need to brush up on our French) is your guiding principle.
And this takes us into the second reason for Johnson to step up now: the nature of the contest itself.
Unlike a general election – or the 2016 referendum, for that matter – the general public doesn’t really matter in this contest. Until Thursday, the electorate consists of just 313 individuals, the MPs of the Conservative party. Social media clips and videos of your dog are all well and good, but they don’t necessarily sway one’s fellow MPs. As absent as Johnson has been from the airwaves, his team have been all over Westminster, with a determination and rigour unmatched by any other candidate.
But MPs are only the gateway here. If there has been one certainty about this contest, then it has been that it would go to the party membership for the final decision: the experience of Theresa May’s coronation in 2016 and its failure to stress-test her ahead of the following year’s general election has left a deep and searing mark on the collective psyche.
That means that securing the support of many MPs is only part of the battle: the message now needs to be sold to the 100,000 or so members and, once again, TV is the best format for that. Tuesday’s debate will be with a smaller number of opponents, so Johnson can appear more important and so lay the groundwork for his appeal for the final stage of the voting. Indeed, the hope must be that this is the point at which to launch the big action of his first days in Number 10: securing changes to the Withdrawal Agreement and delivering on Brexit.
Of course, as any good classicist might note, you should trust a medium – ‘television’ – whose name is half-Greek, half-Latin in origins.
By Dr Simon Usherwood, Deputy Director at the UK in a Changing Europe.