Cameron moves to exclude Farage from the TV debates

PM says that only "the parties that are going to form the government" should be included if the debates are repeated in 2015.

Conservative commentators have long argued that one of the reasons the Tories failed to win a majority at the last election was the inclusion of Nick Clegg, the "none of the above" candidate, in the TV debates. The Lib Dem surge forced the party to direct resources away from attacking Labour and helped deny them victory in key marginal constituencies (the Conservatives finished second in 38 of the 57 seats won by the Lib Dems). A ConservativeHome survey of 109 Tory candidates in 2010 found that 91 per cent agreed that "the election debates gave the Liberal Democrats by-election status, and disrupted an already disjointed Tory campaign".

In view of this, it's unsurprising that David Cameron is determined not to repeat this tactical error in the case of UKIP. If and when the TV debates happen (and it remains a big 'if'), Nigel Farage's party, which stands a chance of winning the European elections in 2014, will undoubtedly push for inclusion. A recent ComRes poll found that 54 per cent of people believe Farage (who put in a typically assured performance on last night's Question Time) "should be offered the opportunity to take part alongside the other main party leaders". But in an interview with the House magazine, Cameron makes it clear that he's not one of them. He tells Paul Waugh and Sam Macrory: "Obviously, we have to decide on this nearer the time, but the TV debates should be about, you know, the parties that are going to form the government, in my view."

As you might expect, Farage has responded by describing Cameron as "embarrassingly out of touch". He said: "If UKIP's share of the opinion polls were to continue as they are now, to exclude us from the debates when the Lib Dems were included last time would make British politics look as outdated as the closed shop and embarrassingly out of touch.

"If he wants to restrict it to those parties who are likely to form the next government, he'd better not be booking studio time himself with confidence."

But Cameron makes a reasonable point. Though casually described as the UK's "third largest party" after outpolling the Lib Dems in recent months, UKIP still have no MPs and will be lucky to improve on this performance at the next election. Yet it is still likely to prove harder to justify the exclusion of Farage than it was to justify the absence of Alex Salmond in 2010. In the case of the SNP, the three main  parties can at least argue that only those parties competing to form the next Westminster government should be included, but this argument doesn't apply to UKIP. If the party is polling at least five per cent in 2015 (the threshold normally required for representation under a proportional system) then the right-wing press will likely demand the inclusion of Farage.

Incidentally, one guest at Wednesday night's ConservativeHome new year reception told me that George Osborne (that night's guest speaker), who remains the Conservatives' chief election strategist, has, in effect, declared that the debates will take place "over my dead body". So, as I said, don't count on a repeat in 2015.

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage said David Cameron was "embarrassingly out of touch". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.