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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.

Miliband, Clegg, Cameron in a row
The leader line-up for 2015. Source: Getty

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.