David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband stand together as Prince Charles launches a new youth campaign at Buckingham Palace on November 21, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Would Clegg be able to block a Cameron-Miliband TV debate?

Were the debate to be held before the general election campaign begins, the impartiality rules would not apply. 

One of the dangers of Nick Clegg's decision to debate Nigel Farage was always that it would encourage David Cameron and Ed Miliband to host their own head-to-head (as I previously noted here). Both the Tories and Labour see potential benefits in a one-on-one contest between the two men fighting to become prime minister. Aware that Cameron outpolls both his party and Miliband, the Conservative have long intended to frame the election as a presidential battle ("do you want David Cameron or Ed Miliband as your prime minister?") and a debate would be the ideal way to amplify this impression. Conservative whip Greg Hands gave the game away when he tweeted during the German leaders' debate: "Interesting that German TV debate only has the leaders of the two parties who could conceivably be the Chancellor. No FDP, Greens, etc". 

Although Labour is pushing for a repeat of the 333 format (three debates between three leaders over three weeks), some in the party believe that a Cameron vs. Miliband contest would help the party to retain the crucial group of Lib Dem defectors. 

With Cameron still refusing to commit to the debates, and other Tories continuing to float the idea of excluding Clegg, the Deputy PM has publicly intervened, telling the FT: "I struggle to think of even half a respectable excuse the Conservatives could come up with to deny the British people the right to see the party leaders measuring up against each other in a leaders’ debate.

"Ed Miliband and I said we’ll sign up on the dotted line, and repeat the format of last time. People found it a useful innovation and I think the Conservatives shouldn’t run away from having the kind of debate that we had last time."

An aide suggests that the exclusion of Clegg would breach impartiality rules and refuses to rule out legal action to block a Cameron-Miliband debate. The aide has in mind the Ofcom rules which classify Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems as "major parties" for the purpose of general elections (the regulator will need to decide whether to add Ukip, as it has done in the case of the European election) and require broadcasters to give equal treatment to them. But crucially, these only apply during an election campaign, not outside of it. One suggestion made by Cameron is that any debates (which he complained "sucked the life out of" the 2010 campaign) could take place before the dissolution of parliament. Were that to happen, Clegg could struggle to avoid being left out. 

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.