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Broadcasters need the tension and drama of the leaders' TV debates too much to let them go

Those who believe a "chicken" Prime Minister won’t go in for the televised leaders' debates are living in cloud cuckoo land.

You would think live televised debates between the party leaders had been around since the time of the Great Reform Act such has been the furore of recent days.

Funny then that so many of us see them as part of the campaign furniture after making their debut just five years ago. Perhaps that is because they were such a runaway success back in 2010, with the (short-lived but memorable) outbreak of Cleggmania.

Nine and half million people watched that first debate as the Lib Dem leader looked down the camera lens and spoke solemnly about “an alternative . . . to two old parties who’ve been running things for years.”

This bravura performance from the rank outsider won an astonishing on-the-night victory with 43 per cent audience approval in the immediate aftermath. It also confirmed that the debates – first mooted by Harold Wilson back in 1964 – were a more than welcome addition to the long slog to polling day.

Crucially they are a direct conduit to power, a high stakes means of instantly connecting with millions of voters in an age of political disillusionment. David Cameron and the rest of the leaders know this perfectly well, as do the broadcasters themselves.

It’s often overlooked but despite living in a television age most TV journalists are often way behind the written press when it comes to actually breaking stories.

The single biggest worry for editors during my many years at the BBC was if the newspapers had arrived late – or worse still not at all – during those still dead hours of the night shift. That would always ensure managers were hopping mad.

With these debates it’s different, the broadcasters themselves are centre stage. Lights, camera, action equates to tension and drama. When the credits roll at the close the spin room whirls and thereafter the 24-hour news cycle is devoted to the fallout from these set-piece dustups. In short, it’s pure razzmatazz and feeds directly into the acute adoration of American media and politics which so many British TV executives possess.

Therefore the broadcasting fraternity are unlikely to easily give up their fight for a repeat screening and can be expected to dig their heels in over Cameron’s refusal to take part unless the Green Party are included.

That is why the “fully committed” line from at the BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4 is so telling. You see it dovetails ever so neatly with the “empty chair” scenario advanced by Labour, Ukip and others.

Don’t be fooled, this is not a kite-flying exercise by the opposition parties. At a very high level indeed they and the broadcasters are in cahoots and happy to flex their muscles.

There will be many more secret meetings, emails and phone calls between the stations in the days ahead and all concerned will be mighty slow to spike the notion of debating sans-Cameron as they know he would be terribly damaged if that were to transpire.

The Prime Minister, once so supportive of debates, is being ultra-canny. The incumbent has much to lose and one slip on live TV could be telling. Indeed the Conservatives are convinced that last time around these events cost them an overall majority.

Also just look at the series of clashes between Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and their Unionist opponents in the run up to Scotland’s independence referendum. Only once in half a dozen debates did the Better Together campaign come out on top – and this when Salmond started talking about aliens and pandas.

In effect the debates of 2010 were an aberration, but surely broke the mould. Gordon Brown, behind in the polls and with little to lose, chose to take the plunge.

This time Cameron may ultimately be forced to the podium by a cocktail of opponents, broadcasters and public opinion. Should he do so under such circumstances it would be a much weakened Tory leader who took the stage.

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London. He is a former BBC staffer.

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.