LONDON — Britain is counting down to its general election in just over two months — and the name-calling has begun in earnest.
Prime Minister David Cameron refused Thursday to take part in a head-to-head TV debate with opposition leader Ed Miliband, giving ammunition to rival parties who all jumped in to accuse Cameron of cowardice and “running scared.”
“He is cowering from the public,” said Miliband, who leads the Labour Party. “The British people deserve this debate. I’ll debate him any time, any place, anywhere.”
British voters go to the polls May 7 in what is widely expected to be the most unpredictable national election in decades.
The parties have been squabbling over the televised showdown for some weeks. Cameron’s camp said Thursday it has given its “final offer” to debate organizers: Instead of a one-on-one debate with Miliband, the Conservative leader would only agree to a single, 90-minute contest involving at least seven party leaders.
The proposed debate would take place before March 30, when the official election campaign kicks off.
Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Cameron’s junior partner in the ruling coalition, hit out at what he called the “lofty pomposity of the Conservatives.”
“They’re behaving as if they’re ordering a drink in the drawing room of Downton Abbey. It’s not for the Conservatives to start telling people how these debates are going to happen,” he said.
Clegg added that if Cameron was “too important or too busy” to defend the coalition’s record, he would be happy to debate Miliband himself.
Cameron blamed the debate broadcasters for the squabble, and argued that a group debate would matter the most because it “gives everyone a say.”
Opinion polls suggest that voters are lukewarm about both the Conservatives and Labour, historically the two main parties that win a majority.
Instead, support has moved to smaller upstart parties — notably the anti-European U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, and the Scottish National Party, which saw a surge in national popularity after coming close to victory in last year’s Scottish independence referendum.
Broadcasters have proposed a total of three debates, including two group sessions between several parties and a final one featuring just Cameron and Miliband.
Cameron backed televised debates during the 2010 election, but he has since criticized the format for taking “all the life out of” the election campaign and drawing attention away from political issues.
“If we hold the debates in the campaign, we won’t talk about anything else. We’ll only talk about the debates,” he said.