PM's rejection of head-to-head debate is 'devastating blow to his own authority'

David Cameron

David Cameron has dealt a devastating blow to his own authority by refusing to take part in a head-to-head election television debate with Ed Miliband, according to the chair of Labour’s general election strategy.

Labour attacked the prime minister as the leaders of the two main parties prepared to take part on Thursday night in the first of a series of televised election debates in which the two potential candidates for Downing Street will not have any one-on-one contact.

The only time Cameron and Miliband will appear on stage at the same time will be in a seven-way debate on ITV on 2 April. This has been dubbed by Downing Street aides as a “democratic bore-athon” that will dilute the impact of Cameron’s two most significant opponents – Miliband and the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage.

Douglas Alexander told the Guardian that the prime minister’s refusal to take part in a head-to-head contest with Miliband had severely undermined his authority.

He said: “We regret David Cameron’s unwillingness to debate with Ed head to head. It undermines, indeed devastates, his claim to strong leadership when he is not willing to debate the alternative prime minister with days to go in front of the public. But we will nonetheless take the opportunities provided by the broadcasters to make our case to the country.”

Speaking of the final debate on 30 April, in which Cameron, Miliband and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will appear separately, Alexander said: “We are now in the position where David Cameron will be in the same studio on the same evening in front of the same audience as Ed Miliband with a week to go until polling day. Yet he is maintaining the ridiculous position of refusing to debate his opponent to be prime minister of the country.

“I think British voters will judge very harshly a British prime minister who is unwilling to put himself up for a job interview in front of the people who decide, the people of Britain, with just a week to go until polling day.”

A Downing Street source said Miliband should be grateful to No 10 for ensuring he does not have to take part in a head-to-head encounter with the prime minister.

“We had a very good head-to-head at prime minister’s questions,” the source said of the final encounter before the election, in which the prime minster ruled out a VAT rise and Miliband was unable to say whether he would rule out a rise in national insurance. “We have done Ed Miliband a favour by not having a head-to-head television debate.”

The sniping follows months of wrangling between the broadcasters and among the political parties over the format of the debates as Downing Street sought to avoid a repeat of the 2010 debates between the leaders of the three main parties. The prime minister felt that one of his central messages of the campaign – that he was a fresh face for the future – was undermined by Clegg’s unexpected success in the debates.

In the first debate in this year’s campaign, which will be broadcast on Thursday night by Channel 4 and Sky News, Cameron and Miliband will be interviewed separately by Jeremy Paxman and will take part in separate “town hall” meetings, moderated by Kay Burley.

Cameron and Miliband will be joined by the leaders of five other parties for the second debate, which will be broadcast on 2 April. The seven-way debate, to be moderated by Julie Etchingham on ITV, will also Clegg, Farage, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, the Greens’ Natalie Bennett, and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood.

The next encounter, called the “challengers’ debate” – involving Miliband plus the leaders of Ukip, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid – will take place on BBC1 on 16 April.

Labour said Downing Street had forced Clegg to miss this debate as the price for No 10 allowing the deputy prime minister to take part in the final debate on 30 April. This will be a special Question Time on BBC1 on 30 April, a week before polling day, in which Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will take questions separately from an audience.

All sides have been preparing for the debates, though Miliband has devoted more time to them than the prime minister. Cameron has been joking to friends that his biggest challenge on Thursday night is to deal with a potential “Pink Pussy” question from Paxman.

The future prime minister uncharacteristically stumbled when Paxman asked him in a Newsnight interview during the 2005 Tory leadership contest whether he knew what a Slippery Nipple and a Pink Pussy were. They were both drinks served by a chain of bars with which he had financial links.

“I couldn’t say anything because it wouldn’t really have done to mention Jay Jagger and the Pink Pussy club in Ibiza,” the prime minister has been heard to joke to friends by way of explanation for his brief stumble in 2005. The daughter of Mick Jagger used to frequent the Pink Pussy strip club in Ibiza in the late 1990s.

The prime minister’s preparation for the Paxman interview has mainly consisted of mugging up on policy areas with the help of a pile of folders. No one is playing the role of Paxman.

The Tories have belatedly started to make preparations for the other debates. Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s cerebral and smooth adviser, is playing Miliband. Harrison was taught at Oxford by – and retains friendly relations with – one of Miliband’s policy gurus, Lord Wood of Anfield.

Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary whose success in understanding Clegg in the 2010 debate preparations first alerted the leadership to the threat posed by the Lib Dem leader, will reprise his old role. Oliver Dowden, a highly regarded No 10 aide who is standing for the Tories in Hertsmere, is playing Farage.

Miliband, who has spent months preparing for the debates, is taking tips from The West Wing – the US drama series about an academically inclined president on the progressive left.

The Labour team have taken themselves out of London for professional “debate prep” session in which Tony Blair’s former director of communications, Alastair Campbell, has played Cameron. These are run and filmed by professional consultants and have been attended by David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former senior strategist, who is advising the Labour campaign.

The debates have assumed enormous importance for reasons which go beyond the drama of live television encounters between political leaders, many of whom would prefer the election campaign to be a six-week photo opportunity. The attitude of the two main parties to the debates provide telling lessons on their approach to the wider election campaign.

Cameron was keen to kill off the debates – or at the very least dilute their impact – because he fears that direct contact with Miliband would undermine one of the main Tory messages: that he is a weak leader woefully out of his depth.

Miliband is in the classic position of a challenger who wants to confront an incumbent leader who is, in the eyes of the Labour leader, eminently beatable on the grounds that he has no consistent values and appears to chop and change positions with ease.

A Labour source said: “It is very difficult to base your entire election strategy on the idea that you are a strong prime ministerial, almost presidential figure, and that your opponent is weak if you are the one cowering behind the sofa refusing to go head to head with your opponent. It shows how worried they are that they have calculated that it would be more damaging for them to have a head to head.”

Labour is taking its preparations for the debates so seriously because they will give Miliband a chance to show his character to the country rather than the Tory caricature. The Labour source said: “There is an opportunity in this election for character to be assessed rather than caricature. Ed Miliband is winning points for resilience and consistency. He never leaves behind his decency.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 26th March 2015 11.29 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010