Downing Street has finally come clean over the TV debates. They've admitted that David Cameron only ever had one target audience: his backbenchers. And everyone else including Joe Public and the media can just go swivel. No way is he getting out of bed for them because he's scared.
As you've probably noticed, DC is more than happy to knock 10 bells out of Ed Miliband every week across the dispatch box at PMQs. And why not? His boringly inevitable victory never fails to rally his backbench troops. It gives this set of hardworking, long-suffering cannon-fodder a stress-relieving opportunity to moo, bray and refine their General Melchett impersonations.
In PR terms PMQs is a win for DC. It effectively targets this niche audience who absolutely love it - and therefore him - if only for those few moments before they return to plotting a way to oust him. And there's virtually no PR leakage either because, let's face it, only the media and political nerds like me actually watch PMQs live. Yes, the evening news programmes devote about 10 seconds to it every week to keep the other 99.95% of the population up to speed. And it does serve a vital social purpose, giving a natural break in which voters can ask their life-partners to pass the tomato sauce.
But suddenly, out of a clear, Tory-blue sky, with no warning at all, no time to plan a PR strategy, there's a General Election! How can that be? Where did that come from? And how can Downing Street possibly have known that TV debates would be on the cards?! *sigh* Hence the traditional political scrabbling to create a 'true' history of events for posterity, one totally unrelated to those little things called facts. DC and Downing Street will ensure that history records the media as shambolic and disorganised rather than accommodating and fair.
As a PR guy I'm less concerned with Downing Street's attempts to create a sustainable perception that in the context of the TV debates row DC is the statesmanlike voice of calm and control; displaying his usual fortitude in the face or unreasonable, petty demands. That's good political PR. They're doing their job and all credit to them. But what really does get my goat is that when we cut away all the attempts to rewrite history, Cameron is just a coward. He doesn't want to be on any TV debates because he's scared. His natural comfort zone is preaching to converted backbenchers at PMQs, and there's no way he's stepping out of that zone - certainly not without a regional building-site comfort blanket, a yellow hard hat and a man from the Upper Whallop Gazette to preach to.
I know that he's scared because I know PR people. Deep down his PR aides in Downing Street are screaming, willing him to say 'yes' to every conceivable TV opportunity. Even with all the politics surrounding UKIP and the Greens and SNP, the dangers involved and Cameron's eerie plasticity, I know that the PR people want him out there. And I have sympathy with them. I've heard it all before with my CEO and politician clients. I've heard every single one of the millions of reasons why they don't want to appear on Newsnight or BBC Question Time. But I'll tell you what: not appearing where the public can see you is infinitely worse. Even in the situation DC finds himself in.
So, as it stands, Cameron will be appearing on one TV debate with six other leaders that lasts for 90 minutes. He's banking on there being little time for him to speak and therefore little time for him to mess it up. He thinks the others will make massive mistakes and draw the flack. But actually, what's going to happen is that no one will remember David Cameron. They won't remember one word he said. Once the TV set has been turned off, all people will remember is Nigel Farage, Nick Clegg and Natalie Bennett - and they're the ones who will get the coverage in the days running up to the election. And it won't matter whether that coverage is good or bad. But I wouldn't bet the house on it being bad.
As a final thought, who do you remember from the 2010 TV election debates? Who do you think voters remembered when they went to into the polling booth? Nick Clegg. Just Nick Clegg. There were three people on that stage and the only one of them could communicate with ordinary people - ordinary voting people. Perhaps if Cameron hadn't spent the last five years targeting his backbenchers, then he'd be able to speak to ordinary people too.