Could the broadcasters empty-chair David Cameron? Photo: Flickr/kris krüg
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What will happen if the broadcasters try to empty-chair Cameron in the TV debates?

The Prime Minister has refused to participate in the televised leaders' debates unless the Greens are included. Could he be empty-chaired, and what would happen if so?

Politicking and point-scoring around the prospects of televised leaders’ debates have gone into overdrive. It’s safe to assume plenty is happening behind closed doors, but much of the process is played out in public. Cameron has hardened his stance that the Greens be included, while the other parties have threatened to empty-chair him.

Whether or not you think the Greens should be involved, the politics of the negotiations are fascinating. But why does it matter so much if this small party is invited or not?

Political space

Cameron claims including the Greens is an issue of “fairness”, but his real calculation is simple. The Greens are more of a threat to take votes from Labour (and some Lib Dems), while Ukip are most damaging to the Conservatives (at least when compared to how people voted in 2010).

With Ukip’s rise, the right could be more divided than the left for the first election in decades. This is based on an old-fashioned spatial theory of voting behaviour, but regardless of whether voters still think in terms of left and right, it remains true that Labour are most under threat from a Green surge.

To increase his chances, Cameron needs the Greens (both in the debates and in the election coverage more widely) to ensure Miliband is dragged to the left as much as he is dragged to the right by Farage. In the jargon, Cameron needs to pull Miliband away from the “median voter”.

There is a chance this is all moot: Bennett is an inexperienced speaker, and may fail to take full advantage even if included. However, both parties should remember “Cleggmania”, and be wary of minor parties successfully casting themselves as the outsider to an unpopular political establishment.

Poker face

Refusing to take part in any of the debates is an almighty gamble. Cameron risks being blamed by the public and the media if they don’t happen.

It also allows every other party leader to put pressure on him, as Miliband attempted to do in this week’s PMQs. Any time he, Clegg, or Farage are put on the spot in an interview they can simply bridge to the debates: “If the Prime Minister thinks this is such a good idea, why won’t he come on and defend them in a debate?”

Cameron also runs the risk of being empty-chaired. The BBC, often accused of left-wing bias, would probably bottle it, but I wouldn’t be so sure about ITV and Sky. It’s unlikely we’ll see an empty-chair on our screens, but Cameron’s error may have been to underestimate the broadcasters’ eagerness for these debates to happen. Their willingness to proceed regardless may force him into a U-turn. Either way, the chance of the debates being called off altogether seems very slim.

Chicken

Cameron is a shrewd politician. If the debates go ahead a U-turn is might not actually be such a bad thing. He could say that although he believes it is a totally unfair outcome, he has listened to the people, and has decided that the most important thing is for the debates to happen. The word “chicken” has been bandied around by both sides, and that’s what this negotiation is: a game of chicken. The leaders are speeding towards the election, but Cameron has an advantage: he knows he can survive the crash.

Alternatively, Cameron might get his way if broadcasters’ enthusiasm translates into negotiation. Having Cameron there is more important than the Green Party issue, so they may accommodate his demands. One compromise could be allowing Farage into the BBC’s currently three-way debate to reflect their new Major Party status, and inviting the Greens onto the ITV debate.

Thus, Cameron holds a strong hand. While it’s unlikely he can stop the debates happening at all, he might get the Greens in. If not, he can leave it until the last minute and U-turn if he needs to.

The PM is also banking on most of this passing the public by. Few people who follow these party political stories are swing voters. Most who notice it will see Cameron’s as a cynical move, but the key swing voters he needs to reach are those who will end up watching the debates, or reading the reaction the next day. The means to his preferred ends matter less, because most people don’t care about the process leading up to the debates.

Just like the election outcome itself, the final format of the debates is impossible to predict, but it seems very likely that they will happen in some form, and that Cameron will play some part. It’s Cameron’s gamble, but one that could easily pay off.

Charlie Cadywould is a researcher at the think tank Demos

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.