David Cameron during the 2010 leaders' debates. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the Tories might demand the Greens are included in the TV debates

They hope the inclusion of Green leader Natalie Bennett would boost her party at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems. 

For months, the Conservatives have responded to calls from Labour and the Lib Dems to agree to a repeat of the TV election debates by saying that they are unwilling to begin negotiations until after the conference season. This has aroused the natural suspicion that the Tories, who partly blame the 2010 debates for their failure to win a majority, are seeking to prevent them from happening at all. 

It is the fear that the debates would advantage one or more of his opponents that explains Cameron's hesistancy. Labour figures regard them as an opportunity for Ed Miliband to speak directly to the country, unmediated by a hostile press, and as a means of countering the Tories' financial advantage. Having performed credibly against Cameron at PMQs in his four years as leader of the opposition, they are confident that Miliband would surpass expectations. As the papers demonise him as the most dangerous man in Britain, voters may warm to the moderate figure who wants to freeze their energy bill and build more homes. It is Cameron, as both the Tories and Labour recognise, who has the most to lose. 

In an attempt to end the impasse, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News have published a joint proposal this morning. They suggest:

- One head-to-head debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband - the two leaders who could become prime minister - co-produced by Sky News and Channel 4 and chaired by Jeremy Paxman. 

- One debate between Cameron, Miliband and Nick Clegg, produced by the BBC and presented by David Dimbleby.

- One debate between Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Nigel Farage, produced and broadcast by ITV and chaired by Julie Etchingham. 

The most notable point is the exclusion of the Greens. Like Ukip, they have one MP (although Farage's party may soon add another in the Rochester and Strood by-election), and have polled as high as 7 per cent in some recent surveys (sometimes ahead of the Lib Dems), but the broadcasters are unwilling to make room for them.

This contrasts with the plan floated earlier this year by Cameron, which envisaged one debate between the five main UK parties (including the Greens) and one debate between himself and Miliband. Cameron said then: "I'm very keen to examine all the formats that we could have and I've suggested that perhaps we should have one debate with all the parties in, so that everyone can have their say, and perhaps we could have a debate where the two people who could actually be prime minister debate directly with each other.

"I don't think you could have a party like Ukip, without an MP, without the Greens, who have got an MP. So there are quite a lot of issues that have to be ironed out."

As several Tories told me at the time, there is a specific incentive for them to ensure the Greens are included. They hope that the addition of leader Natalie Bennett would boost her party at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems, creating a split in the left-wing vote to match that on the right. 

In response to the broadcasters' proposal, No.10 has said: "We note the request and we will respond accordingly." It is worth asking whether Cameron will demand the inclusion of the Greens as a condition of the debates taking place. 

Meanwhile, Farage has welcomed the announcement, while leaving open the possibility of a second debate featuring him. He tweeted: "Decision is better than it could have been. If political landscape continues to change we would expect and ask for inclusion in 2nd debate."

But the Lib Dems have responded much less favourably, criticising the proposed exclusion of Clegg from one of the debates. A spokesman said: 

The Liberal Democrats have long argued that the debates last time round were of huge benefit to our democratic process and engaged millions of voters.

The Liberal Democrats therefore welcome the fact that the broadcasters are seeking to make progress to ensure that the debates happen again in 2015.

The Liberal Democrats, like the Labour Party, have publicly said that we would be prepared to sign up to the same 3-3-3 system we had in 2010.

We do not accept the proposal that the Liberal Democrats, as a party of government, should be prevented from defending our record in one of the TV debates.

That is the case we will make strongly in the negotiations that will now take place and we urge the other parties to join us around the negotiating table without excuse or delay.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.