13 Oct 2014

Farage invited to TV debate

Douglas Carswell just re-entered the Commons in his new guise as a Ukip MP. The Commons, which had been noisy with Labour cheers for the new Heywood and Middleton MP, Liz Macinnes, went into what Douglas Carswell afterwards called “stony silence”.

There was strangely reverent bow to Michael Gove, the chief whip, the whole exchange to the bafflement of many Tory MPs who were maintaining granite like expressions. Rather than choose his seat on the opposition backbenches, Douglas Carswell went out of the exit behind the Speaker’s chair and off to tea with Nigel Farage. Whips will be peering round the door to see how many Tory MPs accepted Douglas Carswell’s invitation to join them.

A landmark day for Ukip because it also brought an invitation to the leaders’ TV election debates. They’re only invited to one of the 3 planned debates in the broadcasters’ outline plans. Nigel Farage said the broadcasters might need to revisit that if his poll ratings continue to spiral upwards.

Instead of three debates of three leaders (Lab, Con and Lib Dem) the broadcasters are proposing one debate of three, one of Con v Lab and one of four leaders (the three plus Ukip).

David Cameron insisted this morning that he was a big fan of TV debates but raised two objections to the draft plan which will come as no surprise to the broadcasters. He wants to move the debates (most if not all of them) out of the actual election campaign proper.

The broadcasters’ plan keeps them all in April 2015 (parliament would rise on 31 March, kicking off the campaign proper). The broadcasters will argue that with an exceptionally long campaign in the diary the debates will not dominate the election in the way they did last time.

They will also argue that the novelty factor will have worn off and that should help reducing their dominance of the campaign too. They would also argue that you can’t really have “election debates” until all the parties have published their manifestos, and that means waiting until the starting gun has been fired.

Deep down, the Tories worry not only that Nigel Farage would sweep up support as he did in the Clegg/Farage debates in the European election. They also worry that with Ed Miliband’s ratings so low, the only way is up for the Labour leader. Prof Philip Cowley, co-author of the “The British General Election of 2010,” told me expectations of Ed Miliband are so low that “when he comes on stage and doesn’t soil himself … he will out-perform expectations”.

Will Ofcom allow the ITV debate to stay at four party leaders? The Greens are already lobbying for a place in the studio. The Ofcom committee that would weigh up any such challenge looks at a whole “basket” of measures of support including polls and performance in national elections.

The SNP (now with the third highest party membership levels in the UK) is demanding access to the debate. Last time round the SNP took the matter to court in Edinburgh.

One senior figure in the Tory campaign has mooted the idea of trying to restrict the TV debates to parliamentary party leaders. That would mean Caroline Lucas for the Greens and Douglas Carswell for UKIP. Doesn’t seem to be flying, that one.

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