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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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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear