In the past week there have been two TV debates, one on Channel 4/Sky, featuring a question and answer format, and then a seven way debate on ITV.
The Prime Minister’s reluctance towards TV debates stemmed from the very low expectations of Ed Miliband. In the eyes of the public, the Labour leader was expected to preform badly, so it would have only taken a coherent and competent performance from Miliband in a head-to-head debate to have greatly out-performed expectations. David Cameron had nothing to gain from a debate with Miliband, he already had a clear lead over the Labour leader (even if his party isn’t leading in the polls).
Opinion polls have been unclear as to the precise winner of both of these debates. A snap opinion poll via YouGov's Anthony Wells gave Cameron the lead 54% to 46% in the Channel 4/Sky debate, while in the ITV seven way debate a number of different polls showed a range of different results - from a Sturgeon victory, to Miliband and Cameron equal first.
But these results are largely irrelevant to Cameron. The most important post-debate poll for Cameron is that he still has a big lead over Ed Miliband on the subject of who would make the best Prime Minister. The seven way debate allowed very little time for each candidate to speak, and was always going to benefit the smaller parties the most. The fact no leader achieved over 25% in the post-debate polls, shows Cameron achieved what he set out to do - stop Miliband having an opportunity to impress the public. Ed Miliband now has no more opportunities to go up against Cameron before the election in five weeks' time.
Miliband, however, is left in the difficult position of having to participate in the TV “opposition debates”. With neither Cameron nor Nick Clegg present, Miliband will be attacked by the smaller parties for being the only ‘Westminster establishment’ leader. To make matters worse for Miliband, with the exception of Nigel Farage, all the other candidates will be to the left of Labour, allowing them to attack Labour’s commitment to continued austerity.
Cameron risked been seen as a coward by refusing a direct debate with Miliband, and potentially faced an embarrassing ‘empty chair’. Instead his gamble has paid off, he remains personally ahead of Miliband in the polls, and has trapped him into participating in an opposition debate that will only harm Labour.