21/04/2017 09:13 BST | Updated 21/04/2017 09:13 BST

TV Debates Without The Prime Minister Aren't A Gift, They're A Test For The Left

Boycotting the debates should be a major blot on the Prime Minister's copybook. But if the centre-left resort to the rhetoric they've used to start their campaigns, not turning up will end up being a political coup.

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ITV's decision to broadcast live debates with or without Theresa May seems like a gift for her left-wing opposition. Her decision not to appear in any TV debates had already earned criticism from both inside and outside her own party, Tim Farron saying that it shows her to 'hold the public in contempt'. The debates going ahead without her appears to leave the Prime Minister with egg on her face, adding fuel to the accusation that she is "running scared" of public confrontation, especially as the BBC looks set to follow in the same direction as ITV.

But debates without the Prime Minister may not be the blessing they seem. There's a real danger that in the absence of a genuine opposition, the remaining leaders tear each others' parties apart and Theresa May stays above it all.

Rightly, the debates offer an opportunity for each party leader to hold others to account in a very public forum. But without conservative representation, the differences between the parties present might become the focus of discussion, rather than the Prime Minister's empty chair.

The centre-left parties have kick-started their campaigns with fighting talk. In his statement about May's absence from the TV debates, Farron resorted to sniping at Jeremy Corbyn, saying that he could 'defend her position as they seem to vote the same on these matters.' Even a cursory glance at their voting records says otherwise. Nicola Sturgeon has also turned on Corbyn, saying that although they would back a left-wing alliance there is 'total disarray in the ranks of the Labour party.'

In any other election, this might not matter. But this is already an unusual election for the UK, with May calling for a snap election for the explicit purpose of removing any opposition over Brexit in parliament. As she put it, 'Every vote for the Conservatives will make it harder for opposition politicians who want to stop me from getting the job done.'

Party leaders have acknowledged that the election may be less about individual parties than usual, and more about Conservative/not-Conservative. The Conservatives are currently polling with a 17 point lead over Labour, their nearest opposition. Even if taken with a pinch of salt, polling numbers don't look good for the UK's left.

If polls are right, voters are choosing between May and a centre-left coalition. These leaders need to show the public that they can acknowledge their differences, but overcome them in favour of their greater similarities.

So my plea to the left is: don't forget who your real opposition is at the debates. Or at any other time, for that matter. Resorting to snide, misplaced character assassinations doesn't do anyone any favours. Put aside the theatrics of PMQs, and present a united opposition to May's 17 point lead in the polls.

Nobody's saying that the centre-left parties need to forget all their differences -- Corbyn and Farron have rejected the idea of a "progressive alliance" suggested by Caroline Lucas. Which is fair enough. The left-wing parties don't have identical policies, and a pre-election pact doesn't guarantee that votes will be drawn away from the Conservatives.

But the way the centre-left leaders talk about each other matters. Corbyn, Farron, and Sturgeon have all issued combative statements about each other, none of which does anything to reassure voters that a left-wing coalition would not be the 'coalition of chaos' that Theresa May has gleefully predicted.

The debates give a real opportunity to close the gap between left and right, but only if the centre-left parties group together and present a coherent alternative to the absent Prime Minister. May is not wary of the TV debates without reason; around 7 million people watched them in 2015, and BBC polls showed that 38% of voters were "influenced" by them.

Boycotting the debates should be a major blot on the Prime Minister's copybook. But if the centre-left resort to the rhetoric they've used to start their campaigns, not turning up will end up being a political coup.