As far as I'm concerned, I am of the school that the debates can suck life from an election campaign. A chance for an audience to interrogate leaders as per special Question Time episodes in 2001 and 2005 are preferable, in my opinion. However, the genie's out the bottle and it is undeniable that in 2010 the debates reached a much wider audience than the 65% who did turn out. Anything that encourages political participation, even if it's only voting, has to be take seriously and encouraged even if it runs counter to one's own (slightly geeky) preferences.
With Dave though, we know accountability is his Achilles heel. The one discernible political talent he has is looking the part. There is no "Daveism", no political creed that is uniquely his. This appalling and vicious government are a Thatcher tribute act, minus her zealotry and pretense to be acting in the best interests of everyone. Beneath the polish and faux decisiveness lies a man with no discernible talent. Completely absent is a burning passion to use his premiership to do things. Dave's there because, in his own words, "I thought I'd be rather good at it". Well Dave, you have proven "rather good at it" if you're a tax-dodging parasite with tens of millions, give or take, in the bank. Take it from me, you've been pretty lousy for nearly everyone else. The problem for Dave is that being held to account will see his act dissolve into quivering jelly. Going up as an insurgent against Gordon Brown last time is different to having an appalling, indefensible record to stand on.
Here's the strategic thinking behind conceding a single debate. Firstly, TeamDave have got to be hoping this will allow him to hide in plain sight. With seven participants the broadcasters will be under pressure to ensure each party has equal air time. If it's an hour long, that just eight-and-a-half minutes for the Prime Minister. Secondly, as no doubt there will be squabbles between the other parties as discussion moves on to tuition fees, or Trident, or Scottish independence, this allows Dave to a) show the Tories are the only party with a serious plan to tackle the issues they think ordinary voters care about, and b) present themselves as a stable alternative to the "chaos" of three or four party coalitions of Labour & friends. Lastly, if the worst comes to the worst and all the other parties tacitly cooperate to attack Dave, Crosby will be banking on it looking like a dog pile with the poor old PM at the bottom. However, as we know the British love an underdog - there's a chance he might emerge with the sympathy of an extra layer of voters. Then again, if Bennett, Clegg, Farage, Miliband, Sturgeon, and Wood choose to berate him over his abject cowardice things could get a bit messy.
Does this really matter in the grand scheme of things though? CCHQ are banking on the row about the debates being seen as a bubble issue that doesn't resonate out there. They're wrong. If BBC News website is an accurate barometer of such things, it is right now the most read item on site and will also be leading all the evening's news bulletins. This is one of those issues that crosses over into the public imagination, and what are they seeing? A Prime Minister trying his damnedest to avoid debating his opponents. What a pitiful spectacle.