Theresa May Shouldn’t Have Skipped the British Debate—Just Ask Trump

Missing confrontation with rivals gives candidates an electoral disadvantage

Prime Minister Theresa May. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May thought she would pull a fast one by calling for an early “snap” election. Then she skipped a debate with her rivals. It was a bad move, as Donald Trump could have told her.

In 2015, after dominating headlines for months, Trump made the curious move to skip the debate just before the Iowa caucus. His reason for avoiding it was reportedly his spat with Fox News anchor and moderator Megyn Kelly. By ceding the spotlight, he allowed a narrow upset by Sen. Ted Cruz.

Trump learned his lesson, came roaring back, participated in subsequent debates, and never looked back on his road win to the Republican nomination. While some suggested Trump should ignore the general election debates with Hillary Clinton, he didn’t, and the event gave him a massive platform to advocate his positions. He probably would have lost the White House if he dodged the debates. He ended up even winning Iowa en route to his Electoral College victory.

He’s hardly the only one to blow an election by skipping a debate. Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist PRD party had a commanding lead in the 2006 election, thanks to his populist brand of politics. Lopez Obrador was so overconfident that he skipped the first debate, opening the door to the low-key, pragmatic rightist Felipe Calderon of the PAN party. They left an empty chair for him in the debate (La Silla Vacia, they call it). He lost the election 35.31 percent to 35.89 percent. His disdain for that first debate cost him. Lopez Obrador hopes to run again in 2018. He should write down those debate dates this time.

Gone are the days of 1964 when LBJ elected not to debate Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater or when Richard Nixon chose not to take on Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace or George McGovern in 1968 and 1972. Opponents used the phrase “Dictators Don’t Debate.” But with debates being the media events that they are, people expect their politicians to discuss the issues with their opponents.

Theresa May didn’t show up, and her home secretary stand-in offered some vague excuse about May “wanting to meet with voters.” If that’s the case, calling a narrow snap election is the worst way to do that. Everyone in the U.K. knows that.

Her rivals piled on. They kept asking where she was. “The first rule of leadership is to show up,” snapped the Green Party leader. Her absence seemed to dominate the debate and coverage of it. It made erratic Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn look somewhat more statesman like, which many previously thought was impossible.

If May had a long resume of success, she could probably have banked on that experience, the way LBJ and Nixon did. But she’s been prime minister for less than a year, and her election was almost an accidental choice after then-Prime Minister David Cameron resigned after Brexit and many Tories took themselves out of the running, not wanting to preside over the U.K’s painful disengagement with Europe.

May, the U.K.’s second female prime minister, has drawn comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to lead the House of Commons. Those links are unfortunate because now, especially with May’s decision to flee the debate, she looks even less like a Thatcherite. Can you imagine the Iron Lady skipping a debate with Labour and Liberal Democrats? Thatcher seemed to relish confrontation with rivals; she never cut and run like the “Balsa Lady” seems to be. If the British Conservative Party loses this winnable election, they’ll have May’s debate snub to blame.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.

Theresa May Shouldn’t Have Skipped the British Debate—Just Ask Trump