In 2008, while sitting in opposition at the House of Commons, Tory leader David Cameron goaded then prime minister Gordon Brown about an unwillingness to agree to pre-election television debates.
With his customary blend of red-faced indignation and prep school sneering, Cameron said the following words, which have come back to haunt him: "I have to say to the prime minister that if he really thinks that these exchanges once a week [in prime minister's questions] are a substitute for a proper television debate, then he is even more out of touch than I thought. We have to be honest with ourselves, not many people watch these exchanges. And not all those who do are hugely impressed with them...The prime minister has no objection in principle - when he was shadow chancellor, he did a television debate against the then chancellor of the exchequer. So I have to ask him: What on earth is he frightened of?"
Yes, Mr Cameron, we know YOU have "no objection in principle", as you have deigned to offer to participate in ONE television debate, albeit before the formal campaign period has started. But you, your staff and ministers have said everything they can, short of your "dog ate your manifesto", to get you out of taking part in the other planned TV debates. So we must ask, David, what are YOU so frightened of?
In the absence of coherent logical answers from Cameron and his party, we will each have our own suspicions. Here are mine. First and foremost, I think it's critical to remember that not only has Cameron never won an election, but the Conservative Party itself hasn't won an election for 23 years. If the Tories don't win the 2015 general election they will, by the subsequent election, have failed to win an election for almost three decades. This is tragic for them as they are starting to look like an ageing Tim Henman flailing around wildly in the back garden ranting and sobbing at Swingball. Avoiding the unforgiving Centre Court of TV debate and those pesky opponents might seem logical, but Cameron must realise it makes him look ridiculous.
A more serious related point, however, is that a 'major' party not winning an election for decades says some concerning things about the state of British democracy. Even voters who loathe the Tories will recognise the danger of a nation having only one electable party and a few others that can only hope to 'win' power as a coalition. It hopefully hasn't quite got to that stage, but 28 years would be a terribly long time for a 'major party' to not win an election.
An additional serious problem created by this strange situation is that, while enjoying the role of propping up a right wing government, the Lib Dems have stopped doing what they should do best i.e. scrutinise the dominant parties and prevent them from abusing their power. Nick Clegg offering to 'stand-in' for Cameron in the TV debates may have been opportunist mischief, but it also says something about the confusion of the Lib Dems identity and role. There is no reason to assume that the Lib Dems will be the party most likely to make up a coalition in the coming years, or even decades - and there are good reasons to think they will not. There is a good chance that not only will Lib Dems be flung out of the corridors of power but also that they will lack credibility as scrutineers of powerful parties.
Another reason that Cameron might wish to avoid TV debates is he has shown himself time and time again to completely struggle with or avoid questions. Long-suffering watchers of prime minister's questions will be aware of his tendency to try to swerve all but the flattering planted questions read out by obsequious Tory colleagues. During his term in office, Cameron has also been allowed to get away with the bizarre habit of turning on his heels and walking away from broadcast journalists as they ask questions. The satirist Charlie Brooker recently included a compilation of such clips in his Weekly Wipe TV show. Cameron simply says what he wants to say and then abruptly flees. It wouldn't seem much more strange if Cameron just turned up and handed the reporters a tiny press release, then ran off with his hands over his ears.
As well as comically disregarding questions, there are some very serious key issues that Cameron flings away as though they are going to explode in his face. One is the ongoing and expanding 'story' of child abuse rings linked to MPs. Cameron is at best muddled on this issue, once saying that "no stone would be left unturned" in relation to powerful abuse rings, yet subsequently - amid claims that a cover-up had been responsible for more than 100 files relating to 'VIP' child abusers going missing - Cameron appeared to call campaigners 'conspiracy theorists'. So, no stone to be left unturned - but when people ask why some stones seem to be glued down David isn't so keen to talk.
The economy is one subject that Cameron likes his gushing Tory colleagues to ask planted questions about in parliament, but is not so keen on opposition questions. Despite his and Bullingdon chum George Osborne's claims that everything is wonderful, Cameron gets extremely red-faced and throws a tizzy when Ed Miliband brings up the economy. The deficit not falling as claimed, immigration not falling as claimed, foodbanks spreading across the country faster than optimism, and the fact that a great many jobs are zero hours contracts are sure-fire ways of getting Cameron's face to pass through 50 shades of red. He struggles badly to answer questions on those sort of issues and often (even in 2015) tries to pin failures on the previous government. Questions about the impact of cuts on particularly vulnerable people, such as those with disabilities, also leaves Cameron floundering and exasperated. Using the experience of losing a child with disabilities is a particularly troubling way in which Cameron shuts down debate on the NHS or on the impact of austerity on disabled people.
Given that Cameron struggles with questions about those and other issues in the Commons, where he is supported by a self-serving braying mob, we can perhaps forgive him for wanting to avoid TV debates - where inconsistencies in his policies and achievements can be pulled apart in seconds. We can forgive him for WANTING to avoid television debates, but I suspect many voters will not forgive him for actually chickening out of them. Throughout his political career, David Cameron - like many of his colleagues - has shown an incredibly strong sense of entitlement. This can only have been bolstered by getting to be prime minister for five years without actually winning an election. None of us would expect to get a job without going along to an interview, and it says a great deal about David Cameron that he expects to be allowed to keep most powerful job in the country without being subjected to the televised scrutiny that other party leaders regard as a privilege.