Plans for televised election debates were thrown into fresh doubt when broadcasters tried to break the deadlock over the line-up by proposing to include the Green party, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru in two of three proposed debates – only to find their plans met with fierce objections from the Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Unionists.
The broadcasters made their revised offer of two debates involving seven parties and a final run-off between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, after the Green Party objected to its exclusion and found an ally in David Cameron who said he would not participate if the Greens were not present.
Under the revised proposals the seven participants would be David Cameron for the Conservatives, Ed Miliband for Labour, Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats, Nigel Farage for Ukip, Natalie Bennett for the Greens, Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP and Leanne Wood for Plaid Cymru.
The proposals were immediately criticised as a farce by Peter Robinson, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who said he would be writing to the BBC and ITV to ask why his party was not included in their new offer.
He pointed out the DUP has more seats than either Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Greens (as well as Ukip).
The Liberal Democrats responded by saying they had just received the proposals, but immediately objected to being submerged into a debate with smaller parties. A party official said: “We have always been clear that as a party of government, we must be able to defend our record in all the TV debates. We will continue to make that case in our discussions with the broadcasters.”
Labour is likely in principle to welcome the plan, and believe at least David Cameron’s bluff has been called. Miliband has accused Cameron of running scared from the debates. It is possible Labour in internal discussions could argue that the second planned seven-way debate be reduced to four and involve only the “four major parties” as defined by Ofcom the broadcast regulator, a move that would exclude the Greens.
Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, said it was “a significant victory for the vast number of people who have campaigned for the inclusion of the anti-austerity parties in these debates”.
SNP Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, said: “With a larger membership than the Lib Dems and Ukip combined, and more elected MPs than Ukip, the case for including the SNP in the televised debates is unanswerable.”
The new offer tears up two-thirds of the original plan, presented to the political parties in October, which proposed a three-way debate on BBC1, featuring Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, and a four party live event on ITV featuring the same three leaders joined by Farage.
Cameron’s aides have been determined to ensure he does not take part after the 2010 election debates were regarded as a disaster for the Conservatives, fearing a new repeat would boost the fortunes of Farage. It is possible the Tories would tolerate a seven-way debate outside the election campaign and a head-to-head with Miliband in the campaign itself. But the formula would face legal objections and disappoint broadcasters. A spokesperson for the Conservatives said: “Further discussions are planned and we will obviously look at any new proposals presented by broadcasters.”
The broadcasters revised offer reflect the expectation they would face a legal challenge if the Greens and Ukip were included but not the SNP or Plaid. The DUP by contrast is not in competition in Northern Ireland with any of the parties in the seven way debate, and has a weaker case.
The SNP launched a legal challenge against the BBC in 2010 for refusing to allow its then leader Alex Salmond to take part in its debate, one of three that took place before the last election. Plaid Cymru also threatened legal action after their exclusion five years ago.
Adam Boulton, the Sky News presenter who chaired the broadcaster’s 2010 leader debate, said the prime minister had made “two gains” in the proposals but Nick Clegg had lost out.
“If this is true … he has got the Greens included, and you shouldn’t overlook that, and the notion of parity between the two big parties and the Lib Dems has been abandoned, because there was going to be a three-way debate [between Cameron, Miliband and Clegg]. That is a further blow for the Lib Dems.”
Boulton, who was speaking in a personal capacity and is not involved in the current round of negotiations, added: “What he specifically didn’t ask for was the inclusion of the nationalist parties, the SNP and Plaid Cymru.
“If they are going to launch further objections, it would probably be if you are including Plaid Cymru why can’t we have the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein and you end up with a debate which clearly would be completely ungainly.”
Leader debates hosted by the UK’s main broadcasters are not the only offer on the table. Guardian News & Media and Telegraph Media Group have proposed an internet debate with a woman moderator to be streamed live online in a partnership with YouTube.
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