8 Jan 2015

Cameron says no TV debates without Greens

David Cameron’s advisers have been hostile to the idea of TV debates almost since the first one happened in 2010 and Cleggmania hit the nation.

Britain's Conservative Party leader Cameron, Liberal Democrat leader Clegg and PM Brown take part in the third and final televised party leaders' debate in Birmingham


Opinion in the Tory campaign camp has hardened over time and they feel now is the right moment to try to kill off a repeat of the debates in 2015 as proposed by the broadcasters.

David Cameron says he won’t go ahead with the debates if the Greens aren’t included. The Ofcom preliminary ruling today that the Greens don’t count as a


major party appeared to kill off that possibility.

David Cameron thinks if he’s having to put up with Nigel Farage splitting the “right” and pulling away votes from him in a debate, Labour should have to put up with the Greens stealing “left” votes off them  too.

His team hopes that by trying to kill off the proposed format of debates (three debates of four, three and two participants within the election period), now they can weather the accusations of “chicken” and watch the media storm pass and die down.

Newspapers, initially hostile to the debates as they worried TV would steal their thunder in the election campaign, have more recently seemed to back a repeat of the debates. No.10 is braced for some hostility from them.

Maybe the newspapers – like quite a few political professionals – have been wondering how on earth they are going to fill the five weeks set aside for the full-on formal election campaign coverage after 30 March without three TV blockbusters.

Now they may face that challenge.

There’s a chance David Cameron may have boxed himself in here. The broadcasters aren’t legally obliged to exclude the Greens on the basis of an Ofcom preliminary ruling.

If they swung round with Labour support and said the Greens can come to the same debate as Nigel Farage then David Cameron might be put in an awkward position.

But that does not look like it is the intention of Mr Cameron’s intervention. He is not making chivalrous way for the Green Party leader Natalie Bennett. He calculates that as the freshest face unfamiliar to viewers in a debate line-up she could scoop up voters who hadn’t really thought of voting Green before.

It is also an acknowledgement that Ed Miliband would probably exceed many voters’ expectations if he appeared in a debate.

Professor Philip Cowley told Channel 4 News last year that Ed Miliband only needed turn up and “not soil himself” and he would exceed expectations they were so low.

The US forsook TV debates for three presidential elections after its first experiment with them in 1960. Could we be seeing something similar happening today?

There will be a few more twists and turns in this tale before it is finished.

The broadcasters’ plans were for debates taking part between 30 March and 7 May. In theory, something could be mustered to happen before that.

No.10 might decide the outcry for debates is too great to resist. But today looks like a carefully calibrated attempt to kill them off as currently proposed.

As a footnote, an SNP legal challenge demanding participation probably lurks round the corner, if the project ever got back on track. The 2010 SNP legal challenge only failed because it was too late in the judge’s view, not on legal grounds.

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