LONDON — Pollster John Curtice says Theresa May's refusal to debate opposition leaders could damage the Tories' lead in the polls if it becomes part of a wider narrative of unstable or flip-flopping leadership.
The prime minister has repeatedly ruled out the prospect of appearing on television prior to the June 8 election to debate leaders of opposition parties, with aides tightly stage-managing other public appearances.
Asked if her refusal could damage her party's big lead in the polls, Curtice told Business Insider: "It could if the opposition thought of other things that give the impression of a prime minister who, far from being strong and stable, is actually unstable."
"Obviously, the fact she's changed her mind on calling an election is again part of that story. You'd have to build it up as part of a broader story that began to get people to think, 'Actually, it's not quite what it all seems,'" he said.
"On its own, the refusal won't damage her, but [the Conservatives] have to watch the risk that it helps the opposition to paint a broader picture of May," he said.
He said the prime minister's refusal was "obviously wise from her point of view because she is not known as someone who is particularly adept at thinking on her feet."
"She would probably be much more comfortable in the controlled environment of a professional interview, or perhaps on Question Time. But it’s very rare that a member of the public manages to ask a killer question. Ordinary punters don’t usually have the ability to think of the sharp question. Once or twice they do, so [Question Time] would be a bit of a risk, but not much."
"With the interchange of a free-flowing debate, without all the advantages that Prime Ministers have at PMQs with and the way that is structured, there is a greater probability that someone will say something that just absolutely gets under you," Curtice said.
He said that opposition leaders would get a badly-needed "free publicity hit" from the TV debates which would disproportionately advantage them as May already receives blanket coverage in the media.
"Mr Farron needs to get himself better known, Nicola Sturgeon’s a very good debater, Leanne Wood’s not bad, Caroline Lucas is very good, and a TV debate would give all those guys a free publicity hit."
Curtice said that Labour is unlikely to adopt such a strategy towards May, because it would require the party to "accept that, actually, the election is about personalities, which is "not necessarily something those currently running the Labour party think matters."
"It's a question of whether they can think out of the ideological box that they now wish to persuade the public to open the lock to as opposed to thinking outside that box and thinking, 'What can we do to undermine the Prime Minister?'
"They've got to think, what are the things that Tory voters think are quite good about Theresa May, and then play on that."
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