Nigel Dodds is deputy leader of the DUP. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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BBC rejects the DUP's demand to be included in the TV debates

The Democratic Unionist Party's request to participate in the BBC's seven-way panel has been rejected.

It looks like the Democratic Unionist Party's request to be included in the BBC's seven-way televised leaders' debate panel has been rejected.

The Northern Irish party was outraged when it was not invited to participate in the broadcaster's new proposal for the debates, and wrote to the BBC demanding to be invited on. The party's Westminster representative, Nigel Dodds MP, called the party's omission "ludicrous" and pointed out that it has "more seats than Plaid, SNP & Greens", who have been invited to the debates.

But it looks like Dodds' fury has not found much sympathy at the Beeb. The Director General Tony Hall has rejected the DUP's request. The BBC reports that he told the party that he saw no reason to go back on the decision not to include them.

Replying in a letter to the party, Hall said the current panel plan complies with the BBC's impartiality obligations and so the broadcaster is not obliged to include the DUP as well. He is apparently writing a further letter to justify the BBC's decision not to include Northern Irish representation in general in the debates.

In response, the party's leader and First Minister in Northern Ireland Peter Robinson tweeted that the BBC's response was "irrational":

According to the BBC's Norman Smith, the DUP is now planning on getting lawyers involved.

It will be interesting to see how the Prime Minister responds to this development in the ongoing debate debate (the phrase "debategate" is probably not far off). He told the BBC's Today programme this week that he would like to see representation of Northern Ireland on the panel and continues to be reticent about taking part himself. Will he use Hall's decision as yet another excuse not to participate?

Update, 11.50

The BBC and ITV have released a joint statement regarding the Northern Ireland parties:

In separate letters, ITV and the BBC have written to Peter Robinson and set out the reasons for not including the DUP in either network debate. Both the BBC and UTV plan dedicated debates in Northern Ireland involving all the larger Northern Ireland parties.

The BBC’s Director-General, Tony Hall, said: “We would not be fulfilling our obligations of impartiality to the voters of Northern Ireland if we were to invite one of the Northern Ireland parties but not all the others, which also have substantial support in Northern Ireland.”

An ITV spokesperson said: “We take the view that these proposals best meet the objective of delivering a series of relevant and valuable political debates for viewers across the UK. We are satisfied that it is in the public interest to proceed with these proposals as they now stand.”

The broadcasters point out that voters who live in Northern Ireland have a different set of choices from voters elsewhere. The five major parties in Northern Ireland are all different from those in the rest of the UK. In Northern Ireland the main parties are the DUP, Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party. BBC Northern Ireland and UTV plan debates involving those parties and all viewers in Northern Ireland will be able to see them.

If the DUP were included in the network debates it would be necessary to include all the other major Northern Ireland parties too. Including only one, or some, of the Northern Ireland parties would be unfair and discriminatory to the rest. Including all the major Northern Ireland parties in the network programmes would mean having 12 participants - and 97 per cent of viewers, in the rest of the UK, would not be able to vote for at least five of those 12 parties. The broadcasters say that such an arrangement would be disproportionate and not in the wider interests of viewers throughout the UK.

The proposed structure of the debates is fair to all voters, letting everyone see the leaders of the major parties they can vote for:

  • In the network debates all voters in England, Wales and Scotland will be able to see all the main choices available to them on election day.
  • In the Northern Ireland debates all voters in Northern Ireland will be able to see all the main and different choices available to them on election day.

The broadcasters today reiterated that the network debates will go ahead even if any of the invited leaders decline to participate.

The broadcasters said: “We are proposing that the debates should happen within the campaign period at a time when the parties will be setting out policies in their manifestos and when the audience is fully engaged with the election. The 2015 campaign will be nearly six weeks long and there is plenty of time for three debates to be held without overshadowing the rest of the campaign.”

“The proposed dates for the network debates are 2, 16 and 30 April. The order of the debates is to be discussed with the parties. In the event that any of the invited party leaders decline to participate, debates will take place with the party leaders who accept the invitation.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.