Ed Miliband will likely be denied the opportunity to speak to David Cameron one-on-one on air. (Photo:Getty)
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TV debates: Will Miliband and Cameron ever meet on screen?

A new proposal from Downing Street has thrown the debates into confusion.

The debate around debates has taken another confusing turn. James Forsyth reports that Downing Street has agreed to a single seven-way debate on 2 April.

Under a new format, Ed Miliband and David Cameron would be grilled by Jeremy Paxman before facing questions from a studio audience on Channel 4 on 26 March. Crucially, however, the two leaders would be interviewed separately – they wouldn’t tussle directly.

They would then be joined by the leaders of Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the Greens, Ukip and the Liberal Democrats on 2April. Then on 16 April there would be a so-called “challengers debate” between the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and Ukip.  Finally, on 30 April, Cameron, Miliband and Nick Clegg would each have half an hour with David Dimbleby on the BBC.

There is widespread confusion. None of the smaller parties who would appear in the so-called “challengers debate” appear to have heard of the change in the rules. As for Labour, they are maintaining that they have already agree to attend the debates under the old 7-7-2 format, saying:

Based on the broadcasters’ proposals we have accepted and plan to attend all three debates on April 2nd, 16th and the 30th. If the Tories have confirmed they are to attend to one of these debates then that is progress. It is one down, two to go. But no-one should be fooled: David Cameron is still running scared of a head-to-head televised debate with Ed Miliband.”

Frankly if this new format goes ahead it will be a setback for Ed Miliband – the optics of the seven-on-seven debate will favour the Prime Minister against his opponents. (“To every question, all you would have to do is say ‘Look? This is the chaos that’s on offer’” one Tory mused recently.) And the new alternative to the one-on-one gives the Labour leader all of the disadvantages of being directly compared to David Cameron without the opportunity to take him on.

What appears to have happened is that the broadcasters, faced with the unappetising prospect of an hour of also-rans or a duel between Miliband and an empty chair, have blinked first. Cameron has avoided his two nightmare scenarios – a four-way debate with Nigel Farage and a one-on-one with Miliband. And with the Liberal Democrats appearing to accede to the new format, it looks as if Team Miliband’s dream of the head-to-head clash between their man and David Cameron simply won’t happen.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.