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are now, to exclude us from the debates when the Lib Dems were included last time would make British politics look as outdated as the closed shop and embarrassingly out of touch.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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.