General election leader debates: It's two-against-one for 3-3-3

Miliband and Clegg are ready to sign up to three debates over three weeks. They say Cameron is running scared.

There is a casual assumption in Westminster that televised leader debates at the next election will happen. This belief is based on the fact that all three main parties have said that they expect them in theory and the political cost of appearing to chicken out is very high.

But in reality the deal is far from done. Labour and the Lib Dems are both ready to sign up for the so called “333” model – that is, three debates between three leaders over three weeks. The obstacle, they say, is the Tories. The No.10 line is that, naturally, candidates to be Prime Minister should set out their stalls in telly combat, but that doesn’t mean a repetition of the format that was used in 2010. (Note also that only Miliband and Cameron are seriously in the running to be PM. The distinction is important because it excludes Nigel Farage and brackets him as a political B-lister along with Nick Clegg.) One complaint from Conservative strategists is that the three TV marathons “sucked oxygen” out of the campaign, squeezing out everything else, by which they really mean the TV debates allowed Clegg to drain the hopey-changey, fresh faced new-kid appeal out of David Cameron’s campaign.

There are plenty of Conservatives who think the decision to allow the Lib Dem leader to project himself as the “neither of them” candidate in the first debate cost the Tories a majority. That isn’t a trick that Clegg can pull off again – novelty value and youthful idealism are not available to him. But he can still make life difficult for the Prime Minister and the Labour leader.

One of the messages that senior Lib Dems have taken from Ed Balls’s kind(ish) words about Clegg in the New Statesman this week is that Labour are well aware that, on current polling trends, the next election will result in a hung parliament. The shadow chancellor – Clegg’s team speculates – is thinking about shuffling off his image as a tribal politician whose personal animus towards the deputy Prime Minister would be an insurmountable obstacle to governing partnership. As one surprised Clegg aide put it to me yesterday: “It wasn’t just a nod in our direction. He [Balls] really crossed the street to come and say hello.”

This cheers the Lib Dems up no end. It reassures them that their strategy of running as the middle-way party that might moderate Labour and Tory administrations, preventing them from veering too far left or right respectively, is working. One reason Clegg is so keen on the “333” debate formula is that he can gang up with Cameron against Miliband on fiscal policy and team up with Miliband against Cameron on social policy – indicating that a government with Lib Dems in it will take the edge off Tory nastiness or keep Labour spendthrift habits in check, whichever is required.

The Labour side, meanwhile, like the “333” formula because they think Miliband comes across best when given time to set out his arguments. As I wrote in my column this week, Miliband would go into the debates as the underdog, known to be less charismatic than his rivals, and could end up surprising people. He isn’t a flashy soundbite-merchant and he takes a bit of warming up in front of a camera, but on a good day he is capable of making Cameron look shifty, tetchy, haughty and insubstantial in a debate.

In particular, the Labour side want the three debates to be in the final three weeks of the campaign. This is partly to avoid making the long run-up too presidential but also because it is felt having a high-octane finish to the battle will increase the public feeling that it is a “change election”, when the Tories are determined to make it all about continuity, low risk and predictability. It is probably going too far to suggest Labour’s top team expects a last minute surge of Ed-mania but they do think he will benefit if the debates are packed into the last lap.

Senior Labour figures doubt that No.10 is really committed to having the debates at all. (For a long time Cameron avoided saying they should happen.) Labour sources accuse the Tories of stalling, waiting to see what happens in European elections in May and the referendum on Scottish independence in October and, ultimately, hedging their bets in case they decide the whole thing is too risky. Aides to Clegg and Miliband say with some relish that their candidates are ready to sign tomorrow and that Cameron is running scared. That’s the first two-against-one formation of the 2015 general election campaign. It won’t be the last.

The leader line-up for 2015. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.