Cameron won’t debate because he has no record to defend

Why would a leader regarded by both his supporters and his detractors as prime ministerial try to avoid TV debates?

Political leaders usually spend election campaigns fighting on their strengths. For the Conservatives, they have very clear poll leads on the economy and their leader. So why would No.10 be so wary of an event which should play firmly into their hands?

Actually, Cameron's de-facto refusal to take part in the TV debates is part of a pattern of avoiding scrutiny. As prime minister he instantly scrapped the monthly Downing Street press conferences Gordon Brown used to hold – events at which, for all his faults, Brown did not leave until everyone in the room had a chance to ask a question.

When Cameron is forced to take questions after a speech, he limits them to three or four at most – and those only from broadcasters and perhaps one print journalist. He almost never subjects himself to tough, searching media interviews. His preference is always for light-touch TV appearances. How many times have you seen Cameron on a breakfast TV sofa? And how many times have you seen him being grilled on Newsnight?

The Tory leader's aversion to scrutiny is very clear during PMQs. Cameron usually comes out on top in these encounters, but this is mostly the work of the boisterous, deafening support of the Tory benches and the sullen, barely-concealed despair of their Labour counterparts. Cameron's performance itself is typified by flashes of anger and constant evasion. He is now at the point where he almost never knowingly answers a question. PMQs has become two men having completely separate conversations. This led Labour MP Paul Flynn to call a point of order yesterday, saying:

"We should send the prime minister on a seminar to teach him the precise meaning of the word 'question', the precise meaning of the word 'answer' and the link between the two."

Cameron's PMQs performances regularly see him avoid the question

There is a reason for Cameron's refusal to subject himself to scrutiny: he has no record to defend and no plans for the future to promote. He is Britain's first post-modern prime minister. His image is entirely disconnected from the activities of government, just as his answers in PMQs are completely disconnected from the questions he has been asked.

People once spoke disparagingly of Tony Blair's relentless focus on media. But whatever you thought of it, there was substance behind the media strategy. Blair and co argued for a third way in which the private sector was unleashed and some of its proceeds funnelled into public services. He was quite clear that he thought civil liberties were less important than security. He followed a foreign policy of utopian liberal interventionism which he expressed very clearly and then pursued aggressively. Whatever you thought of these ideas – I disagreed with every one of them – he was clear about what he was doing. The media performance was accomplished, but behind it there was substance. Blair's performance in opposition, from Clause 4 to 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime', actually gave a fairly good indication of what he would be like in government.

By contrast, Cameron began his time as opposition leader as a centrist and environmentalist. But the image of him with huskies was replaced almost as soon as he took power by the spectre of privatised forests, a policy he was eventually forced to U-turn on. Soon enough, environmental measures were being branded "green crap". Of the green measures promised before the election, the coalition has made 'good progress' on just a fifth of them.

Cameron may have emulated Blair's media performance, but he lacks the substance

Cameron's idea of the 'big society' turned out to be a mass privatisation initiative in every branch of public service. In most cases very large outsourcing firms like Serco or G4S used their size to outbid competitors in the voluntary sector, won contracts and then sub-contracted out the unprofitable operations to charities. The financial squeeze led charities to some awkward moral places, such as the imposition of zero hours contracts.

On the NHS, Cameron promised no top-down reorganisation and to restore public confidence in the Tories' capacity to manage it. Instead, he allowed Andrew Lansley to undertake a radical overhaul intended to mandate the private provision of services.

In opposition and government, the prime minister has pledged to decentralise power from Whitehall to local communities, but the effect of his time in Downing Street has been the precise opposite. Michael Gove set up free schools ostensibly to remove them from central control and ended up writing the history curriculum at his desk. Chris Grayling has worked tirelessly to overrule decision-making by judges and prison governors and replace it with orders from the Ministry of Justice. Eric Pickles is taking over local councils. This localist government has done as much to centralise power as New Labour ever did.

Michael Gove promised to free schools from central control, but took an active role in how history should be taught

Cameron warned of a future lobbying scandal and then turned a bill on the subject into a brazen attack on Labour. He warned of MPs' second jobs and then spent last week supporting them. The reason people keep on talking about Miliband's 'open goals' at PMQs is simple: the prime minister's record bears no connection to his promises.

Nowhere is this more true than on the deficit, the entire purpose of the government. Here, the level of deception has been flabbergasting. The Tories will spend the election telling anyone who will listen that they have halved the deficit, but this is simply not true. As Fraser Nelson explained in more detail here, the 'halving the deficit' line began life as a sentence which ended 'as a share of GDP'. This was an altogether different way of assessing the deficit than had been used previously. Soon enough, 'as a share of GDP was dropped' and all that was left was the assessment that they had halved the deficit. This is a simple falsehood. There is no more respectable word for it.

The coalition government operates amid a background of profoundly subjective assessments of policy. Cameron and his ministers comment on all sorts of nonsense stories every day, from 'Team Nigella' to Fabio Capello's decision to keep John Terry as England captain. But that commitment to the public debate extends to public perception as well. Objective truth has gradually ceased to matter. 

When Theresa May introduced restrictions to prevent health tourism to the UK, she was told that the 'problem' cost just 0.01% of the NHS budget. Her response was to "refuse to quantify" it. Her reasoning, she said, stemmed from the fact the public believes "there is an issue out there". She maintained a similar explanation when she was asked why she banned the drug Khat, despite there being no evidence of it being harmful. "It is extremely worrying that such an important decision has not been taken on the basis of evidence or consultation," home affairs committee chairman Keith Vaz concluded.

Theresa May is accused of proceeding with the Khat ban despite no evidence of it causing harm

Fellow minister Iain Duncan Smith is an old hand at this objective implementation of subjective convictions. When informed that research had found no causal link between his welfare cap and people looking for work, he replied:

"I have a belief I am right. You cannot absolutely prove those two things are connected – you cannot disprove what I said. I believe this to be right."

This is a government whose statements have had no bearing on its actions and whose actions have no bearing on reality. It is a government of response: responding to Ukip by pledging a referendum on the EU and aping their rhetoric. Responding to Tory backbenchers by dumping centrist ministers like Dominic Grieve or Ken Clarke and pledging to scrap the Human Rights Act.

This is government as a pile of dried leaves – without substance, liable to drift off at the slightest breeze.

There is simply no connection between the things Cameron says and what actually happens. There is not even a connection between how he presents himself – strong, decisive, prime-ministerial – and the reality of the government he leads.

The reason the telegenic prime minister is avoiding TV debates is because they involve rigorous and sustained scrutiny. Given that the image of the government could not be further removed from what it is actually like, that is a risk Cameron cannot afford to take.