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:
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.