TV debates: Will Miliband and Cameron ever meet on screen?

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

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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 special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.