David Cameron, yesterday. (Photo: Getty)
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The prime minister's proposals will wreck any chance of debates

David Cameron's "final offer" will achieve what he wants, and kill off the televised debates. That's bad news for Ed Miliband and the voters - and the Prime Minister might just regret it.

David Cameron has issued his “final offer” to the broadcasters about what format the debates should take – a seven-way debate between himself, Ed Miliband, and the leaders of the Liberal Democrats, Ukip, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, on the week beginning the 23rd March.

On first glance, the demands appear reasonable. But they’re carefully designed to ensure that the Prime Minister’s requests can’t be met, and to prevent the debates from happening. The DUP – whose leader was recently interviewed by my colleague George Eaton – will strongly press their case for inclusion, and may consider legal action, potentially leading to all the Northern Irish parties participating in the debates. In any case, the wrangling will certainly delay the debates past Cameron's deadline. 

It means if the debates do happen, they will take place without him, and it seems unlikely to me that they will take place at all. The seven-way debates always looked in danger of becoming unwatchable – at least one person you can’t vote for, debating at least one person you can’t stand – and without the Prime Minister, a one on one debate between Ed Miliband and an empty chair is unlikely to draw in viewers.

Privately, Labour are fuming at David Cameron’s double-dealing, and it’s not a great look for the Prime Minister to be so transparent in running away from the debates. But Downing Street calculate that the row over the debates will blow over and is unlikely to leave a mark, but a defeat to the unfancied Miliband – who, unless he sets his podium on fire will outperform expectations in the eyes of the public – could do them real damage.

It means that the central focus of the short campaign will not be on the debates, as last time, but will instead hinge on set-piece interviews in breakfast studios and local radio stations instead. That’s probably to the Prime Minister’s advantage; he’s a polished performer on these programmes, where Miliband tends to struggle.

But for all it’s Labour who are disappointed and the Conservative leadership who feel that have got out of a hole, it may be that Cameron’s victory is somewhat shortlived. Without a major giveaway in the Budget – which still looks unlikely – the Tories are running out of opportunities to shift the public opinion their way. Yes, the SNP surge in Scotland means that Ed Miliband will only become Prime Minister at the head of a weak and fractious coalition. But unless David Cameron does something special, there is no way for him to remain Prime Minister at all. He may come to regret throwing away one of his few chances to shift the debate.

 

The full letter from David Cameron’s communications chief, Craig Oliver, to Sue Inglish, chair of the broadcasters’ leaders debate committee:

Dear Sue,

I am writing to you in your capacity as chair of the broadcasters’ “leaders’ debates” committee.

As you know, I have had serious concerns about the way in which this has been handled from the start.

Despite the prime minister having been clear about his concern around holding debates in the short campaign, you did not consult us before issuing a press release last October outlining your plans for three debates during that period.

Had you consulted us, we could have also told you that we also did not think it was appropriate to exclude the Green party from the process.

Despite all of this, we then entered into negotiations in good faith, during which I made the case for a more representative debates structure, including the Greens. It is fair to say that the desire to exclude the Greens was clear from all other parties present.

Three months later – and again without consultation – you surprised us again by proposing a new seven-party structure, this time not only inviting the Greens, but Plaid Cymru and the SNP as well. Again, this was a flawed proposal – that has resulted in the DUP initiating what appears to be legitimate legal action.

Since this proposal has been suggested, there has been chaos. In recent weeks, you have avoided letting the parties sit in a room to hammer out proposals, making progress impossible.

In order to cut through this chaotic situation I am willing to make the following proposal:

There should be one 90-minute debate between seven party leaders before the short campaign. As well as the Prime Minister, the leaders of the Green party, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, SNP and Ukip should invited. The leader of the DUP should be allowed to make his case for why he should be involved. If the broadcasters cannot agree amongst themselves who hosts the debate, lots should be drawn, though the debate should be freely available to whoever wants to broadcast it. In order for it to be organised in time, the debate should take place during the week beginning the 23rd March. I will make myself available to negotiate the details. Having been the editor of numerous broadcast news and current affairs programmes, I know this is ample time to organise a programme.

This is our final offer, and to be clear, given the fact this has been a deeply unsatisfactory process and we are within a month of the short campaign, the prime minister will not be participating in more than one debate.

Yours sincerely,

Craig Oliver
 

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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The SNP thinks it knows how to kill hard Brexit

The Supreme Court ruled MPs must have a say in triggering Article 50. But the opposition must unite to succeed. 

For a few minutes on Tuesday morning, the crowd in the Supreme Court listened as the verdict was read out. Parliament must have the right to authorise the triggering of Article 50. The devolved nations would not get a veto. 

There was a moment of silence. And then the opponents of hard Brexit hit the phones. 

For the Scottish government, the pro-Remain members of the Welsh Assembly and Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, the victory was bittersweet. 

The ruling prompted Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to ask: “Is it better that we take our future into our own hands?”

Ever the pragmatist, though, Sturgeon has simultaneously released her Westminster attack dogs. 

Within minutes of the ruling, the SNP had vowed to put forward 50 amendments (see what they did there) to UK government legislation before Article 50 is enacted. 

This includes the demand for a Brexit white paper – shared by MPs from all parties – to a clause designed to prevent the UK reverting to World Trade Organisation rules if a deal is not agreed. 

But with Labour planning to approve the triggering of Article 50, can the SNP cause havoc with the government’s plans, or will it simply be a chorus of disapproval in the rest of Parliament’s ear?

The SNP can expect some support. Individual SNP MPs have already successfully worked with Labour MPs on issues such as benefit cuts. Pro-Remain Labour backbenchers opposed to Article 50 will not rule out “holding hands with the devil to cross the bridge”, as one insider put it. The sole Green MP, Caroline Lucas, will consider backing SNP amendments she agrees with as well as tabling her own. 

But meanwhile, other opposition parties are seeking their own amendments. Jeremy Corbyn said Labour will seek amendments to stop the Conservatives turning the UK “into a bargain basement tax haven” and is demanding tariff-free access to the EU. 

Separately, the Liberal Democrats are seeking three main amendments – single market membership, rights for EU nationals and a referendum on the deal, which is a “red line”.

Meanwhile, pro-Remain Tory backbenchers are watching their leadership closely to decide how far to stray from the party line. 

But if the Article 50 ruling has woken Parliament up, the initial reaction has been chaotic rather than collaborative. Despite the Lib Dems’ position as the most UK-wide anti-Brexit voice, neither the SNP nor Labour managed to co-ordinate with them. 

Indeed, the Lib Dems look set to vote against Labour’s tariff-free amendment on the grounds it is not good enough, while expecting Labour to vote against their demand of membership of the single market. 

The question for all opposition parties is whether they can find enough amendments to agree on to force the government onto the defensive. Otherwise, this defeat for the government is hardly a defeat at all. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.