Ed Miliband speaks with David Cameron before listening to Angela Merkel addressing both Houses of Parliament in the Palace of Westminster on February 27, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Miliband calls Cameron's bluff on TV debates

Labour leader appoints negotiating team and urges the PM to stop "dragging his feet" and sign up to three debates.

With just over a year to go until the general election, the issue of the leaders' TV debates remains unresolved. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are ready to sign up to a repeat of the "333" format (three debates between three leaders over three weeks) but the Tories are proving to be a stumbling block.

David Cameron, who has complained that the last set of debates "sucked the life" out of the 2010 campaign, has postponed all negotiations on the issue until after the party conference season. The Tories, many of whom wrongly blame the debates for their failure to win a majority at the last election, have long briefed that they would like the debates to be limited to one head-to-head contest between Miliband and Cameron (possibly before the campaign proper begins) or not to take place at all.

Now, Miliband has called Cameron's bluff. In an article for the new issue of the Radio Times, he writes:

It would be extraordinary if any political party tried to argue that cancelling TV debates would serve the interests of democracy. And David Cameron has been very careful, at least in his public utterances, not to do so. But no one should doubt that he is the single biggest obstacle to getting TV debates on at the next election.

He adds:

Mr Cameron wonders aloud if there were not too many debates last time. Whether they were held at the right time, or dominated the campaign too much. There have been reports that he wants to limit the number of debates to one – or none. It is a pity that the Conservatives will not even sit down to begin negotiations until later this year – when it will be harder to secure an agreement – and have stalled at every opportunity they have been given to do so.

I can only assume that Mr Cameron wants his party’s deep pockets to be used for maximum advantage and that perceived political self-interest lies behind his party’s reluctance to get these debates on.

But no one should want the outcome of the next election distorted by the number of direct mailshots and billboard posters a party can buy. And, while TV debates will not level the playing field on their own, they can help enable people to make better-informed choices when they cast their votes.

While conventional wisdom has it that Cameron would come out top in the debates (owing to his superior personal ratings), Labour strategists regard them as a significant opportunity for Miliband. They view the debates as a chance to bypass a largely hostile press and speak directly to voters and to provoke the PM into one of his unattractive "Flashman" rages. As Labour figures rightly note, as often as not, Miliband gets the better of Cameron at PMQs. With the Tories certain to outspend Labour, the debates are also a chance to reach millions of voters for free.

To this end, Labour has appointed party vice chair Michael Dugher and Miliband's director of strategy Greg Beales to lead negotiations with the broadcasters.

In a euphemistic reference to Nigel Farage, Miliband writes that the TV companies will "ultimately determine who is invited", but adds: "because I am not going to give the Conservatives the excuse to walk off the pitch by claiming we have moved the goalposts, the starting point for negotiations should be the agreement Mr Cameron signed up to four years ago: three debates between the three main party leaders over three weeks of the campaign. With the election just a year away, it is time Mr Cameron stopped dragging his feet and showed he is willing to debate the future of our country by allowing the negotiations to begin."

The biggest challenge now for Labour, as one senior source puts it, "is to avoid him [Cameron] getting out of it."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Article 50: Theresa May tries to charm the EU but danger lies ahead

As the Prime Minister adopts a more conciliatory stance, she risks becoming caught between party and country. 

She may have been a "reluctant" one but a Remainer Theresa May was. The Prime Minister's first mission was to reassure her viscerally anti-EU party that Brexit meant Brexit. Today, by invoking Article 50, she has proved true to her word.

In this new arena, it is not Britain that has "taken back control" but the EU. When Brussels drew up the divorce proceedings it did so with the intention of maximising its influence. The withdrawal deal that Britain reaches must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population. The two-year deadline for leaving can only be extended by unanimous agreement. Even the much-maligned European Parliament has a vote.

While keeping her famously regicidal party on side, May must also charm her 27 EU counterparts. In her Commons statement on Article 50, she unmistakably sought to do so. The PM spoke repeatedly of a new "deep and special partnership" between Britain and the EU, consciously eschewing the language of divorce. In contrast to Donald Trump, who pines for the EU's collapse, May declared that "perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe" (prompting guffaws and jeers from Tim Farron's party and the opposition benches). Indeed, at times, her statement echoed her pro-Remain campaign speech. 

Having previously argued that "no deal is better than a bad deal", the Prime Minister entirely ignored the possibility of failure (though in her letter to the EU she warned that security cooperation "would be weakened" without an agreement). And, as she has done too rarely, May acknowledged "the 48 per cent" who voted Remain. "I know that this is a day of celebration for some and disappointment for others," she said. "The referendum last June was divisive at times. Not everyone shared the same point of view, or voted in the same way. The arguments on both side were passionate." 

Having repeatedly intoned that "we're going to make a success" of Brexit, May showed flashes of scepticism about the path ahead. She warned of negative "consequences" for the UK: "We know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We know that UK companies that trade with the EU will have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part, just as we do in other overseas markets. We accept that." May also acknowledged that any deal would have to be followed by a "phased process of implementation" (otherwise known as transitional agreement) to prevent the UK falling over what the PM once called the "cliff-edge". 

In Brussels, such realism will be welcomed. Many diplomats have been stunned by the Brexiteers' Panglossian pronouncements, by their casual insults (think Boris Johnson's reckless war references). As the UK seeks to limit the negative "consequences" of a hard Brexit, it will need to foster far greater goodwill. Today, May embarked on that mission. But as the negotiations unfold, with the EU determined for the UK to settle a hefty divorce bill (circa £50bn) at the outset, the Prime Minister will find herself torn between party and country. Having delighted the Brexit-ultras to date, will she now risk alienating the Mail et al? The National Insurance debacle, which saw the government blink in the face of a small rebellion, was regarded by Remainers as an ominous precedent. May turned on the charm today but it will take far longer to erase the animosity and suspicion of the last nine months. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.