17 Jan 2013

Cameron: exclude Farage from TV debates

In an interview for the latest issue of the House magazine, David Cameron has made it clear he thinks that Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, should be excluded from any TV debates at the next general election.

“Obviously we have to decide on this nearer the time, but the TV debates should be about, you know, the parties that are going to form the government, in my view,” Mr Cameron said.

Since UKIP has no MPs, and will find it hard to elect any MPs even if they maintain their current popularity in the polls, then it seems pretty unlikely that they would have a role, even if a coalition of more than one party again comes about after the next election.

Mr Cameron has come in for much private criticism from Conservatives for ever agreeing to TV debates before the last election, as they allowed Nick Clegg to come to the fore and impress many people who previously did not know much about the Liberal Democrat leader.  He clearly doesn’t want to repeat that with Nigel Farage and give him a huge platform to win over the British public to UKIP.

The Prime Minister said earlier this week that he thinks there should be TV debates before the next election, and said that he is willing to take part again.  But broadcasters who negotiated the last coalition  agreement are far from confident there will be TV debates next time.  Just because we had them in 2010, they argue, doesn’t mean they have become an automatic, established event.  And they point to the United States and Canada as examples of countries where debates did not become automatic.  After the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate in 1960, for example, it was another 16 years before America saw another presidential debate, when Jimmy Carter challenged President Gerald Ford in 1976.

In Britain, for several  decades before 2010, it proved impossible to mount any debates because one party always felt it was in their interests to veto the idea, usually because they were anxious not to endanger their lead in the polls.  Challengers generally want debates, while front-runners don’t.  The same may well happen in 2015.  Whatever leaders may say publicly now about favouring debates in principle, they can always come up with reasons why they don’t like the format and therefore can’t take part.  And the presence of Nigel Farage would be one such possible reason.

Certainly, the big three parties and the broadcasters can expect a strong challenge from UKIP when they try and suggest a debate format next time.  Indeed, Nigel Farage and his colleagues may well go to court to try and make their case.  And we can also expect a much more serious challenge this time from the Scottish Nationalists, whose legal challenge in 2010 was rebuffed in the courts, partly because they mounted it so late in the day.

That’s why there must be a strong chance there won’t be any TV debates in 2015.

Just as interesting is how broadcasters will respond at the next election to UKIP demands to be given a lot more coverage in other TV and radio coverage.  Should they be included as a matter of course, for instance, in studio discussions on issues beyond their normal patch, such as education and health?

In recent elections British broadcasters have broadly worked on the 5-5-4 formula, where the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats are given airtime roughly in the overall ratio of 5-5-4.  The big question is what UKIP has to do now for that formula to be changed to include them (possibly at the expense of the Lib Dems)?  Can the broadcasters continue to exclude UKIP from the formula if, as some forecast, the party tops the poll in next year’s elections to the European Parliament?  Or if UKIP continues for the next two years to perform better than the Liberal Democrats in opinion polls and by-elections?

It’s a tricky decision for the broadcasters next time, and they’ll base any decision on what to do about including UKIP in the formula on several factors.  They include not just the European election vote, and polling information, but also their record in council elections and the number of MPs they have.

UKIP’s long-term future could depend very much on the outcome.

Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter.