For months, the Conservatives have responded to calls from Labour and the Lib Dems to agree to a repeat of the TV election debates by saying that they are unwilling to begin negotiations until after the conference season. This has aroused the natural suspicion that the Tories, who partly blame the 2010 debates for their failure to win a majority, are seeking to prevent them from happening at all.
It is the fear that the debates would advantage one or more of his opponents that explains Cameron’s hesistancy. Labour figures regard them as an opportunity for Ed Miliband to speak directly to the country, unmediated by a hostile press, and as a means of countering the Tories’ financial advantage. Having performed credibly against Cameron at PMQs in his four years as leader of the opposition, they are confident that Miliband would surpass expectations. As the papers demonise him as the most dangerous man in Britain, voters may warm to the moderate figure who wants to freeze their energy bill and build more homes. It is Cameron, as both the Tories and Labour recognise, who has the most to lose.
In an attempt to end the impasse, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News have published a joint proposal this morning. They suggest:
– One head-to-head debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband – the two leaders who could become prime minister – co-produced by Sky News and Channel 4 and chaired by Jeremy Paxman.
– One debate between Cameron, Miliband and Nick Clegg, produced by the BBC and presented by David Dimbleby.
– One debate between Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Nigel Farage, produced and broadcast by ITV and chaired by Julie Etchingham.
The most notable point is the exclusion of the Greens. Like Ukip, they have one MP (although Farage’s party may soon add another in the Rochester and Strood by-election), and have polled as high as 7 per cent in some recent surveys (sometimes ahead of the Lib Dems), but the broadcasters are unwilling to make room for them.
This contrasts with the plan floated earlier this year by Cameron, which envisaged one debate between the five main UK parties (including the Greens) and one debate between himself and Miliband. Cameron said then: “I’m very keen to examine all the formats that we could have and I’ve suggested that perhaps we should have one debate with all the parties in, so that everyone can have their say, and perhaps we could have a debate where the two people who could actually be prime minister debate directly with each other.
“I don’t think you could have a party like Ukip, without an MP, without the Greens, who have got an MP. So there are quite a lot of issues that have to be ironed out.”
As several Tories told me at the time, there is a specific incentive for them to ensure the Greens are included. They hope that the addition of leader Natalie Bennett would boost her party at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems, creating a split in the left-wing vote to match that on the right.
In response to the broadcasters’ proposal, No.10 has said: “We note the request and we will respond accordingly.” It is worth asking whether Cameron will demand the inclusion of the Greens as a condition of the debates taking place.
Meanwhile, Farage has welcomed the announcement, while leaving open the possibility of a second debate featuring him. He tweeted: “Decision is better than it could have been. If political landscape continues to change we would expect and ask for inclusion in 2nd debate.”
But the Lib Dems have responded much less favourably, criticising the proposed exclusion of Clegg from one of the debates. A spokesman said:
The Liberal Democrats have long argued that the debates last time round were of huge benefit to our democratic process and engaged millions of voters.
The Liberal Democrats therefore welcome the fact that the broadcasters are seeking to make progress to ensure that the debates happen again in 2015.
The Liberal Democrats, like the Labour Party, have publicly said that we would be prepared to sign up to the same 3-3-3 system we had in 2010.
We do not accept the proposal that the Liberal Democrats, as a party of government, should be prevented from defending our record in one of the TV debates.
That is the case we will make strongly in the negotiations that will now take place and we urge the other parties to join us around the negotiating table without excuse or delay.