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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.