The Prime Minister might think she has nothing to gain from debating her rivals, but the public want for her to take part in them
Despite having been first proposed back in the 1960s, televised leaders’ debates in British general elections didn’t feature until the 2010 general election. Although in that year's election both David Cameron and Nick Clegg were particularly keen for them to take place, the former Conservative leader took a different line in 2015 when he tried his best to scupper the debates, eventually settling for formats that he preferred.
Theresa May is a notoriously cautious politician, and has refused outright to take part in any televised debates as part of the 2017 general election campaign. The Prime Minister has presumably calculated that her commanding lead in the polls means she has nothing to gain from debating her rivals. However, she does run the risk of upsetting voters.
The latest YouGov/Sunday Times poll finds that 56% of Brits want the Prime Minister to take part in televised debates with the other party leaders. Only one in five people (20%) think Theresa May should not take part in the debates, while a further 25% don’t know.
Unsurprisingly, given the potential benefits it offers to their own preferred party leaders, those who plan to vote for opposition parties are much more keen to get May on TV. Given the boost the Liberal Democrats received from "Cleggmania" after Nick Clegg’s 2010 debate performances, it is easy to see why.
As many as 82% of those planning to vote Labour want to see the Prime Minister take part in the leadership debates, as well as 77% of those planning to vote Lib Dems and 71% for UKIP. By contrast, those intending to vote Conservative are essentially evenly split, with 37% thinking May should be involved in the debates compared to 40% who think she should not.
Yet while the public clearly wants the Prime Minister to take part in election debates, they have no clear preference as to what form any debates should take. A third (33%) think they should involve the party leaders all appearing together and debating one another, as happened at the 2010 and 2015 elections. This is the preferred format for those planning to vote Labour (56%) or Lib Dem (53%).
A further 30% want to see a series of TV specials each featuring only one party leader taking questions from the audience. This to a certain extent emulates the Channel 4, Sky News and BBC News Channel election debate in 2015 which saw Ed Miliband and David Cameron appearing separately to face an interview with Jeremy Paxman followed by questions from an audience. This is the preferred format of people intending to vote Conservative (39%) or UKIP (36%).