Downing Street has issued a “final offer” to broadcasters over the election television debates, declaring in a pointed email that David Cameron will take part in just one debate featuring seven party leaders before the formal campaign begins next month.
Hours after Ed Miliband challenged David Cameron to meet him “any time, any place, anywhere”, Downing Street ruled out a head-to-head encounter with the Labour leader after accusing the broadcasters of allowing the negotiations to descend into “chaos”.
The intervention by the prime minister’s director of communications, Craig Oliver, prompted an angry backlash. Nick Clegg accused Cameron of trying to hold the debates to ransom by dictating terms. Douglas Alexander, the chair of Labour’s general election campaign, accused Downing Street of an “outrageous” attempt to bully the broadcasters into dropping their proposal for a head-to-head debate between Cameron and Miliband.
The row erupted after Oliver sent an email to the chair of the broadcasters’ leaders debate committee, Sue Inglish, to say that he was making a “final offer” which would see Cameron take part in one 90-minute debate between the seven party leaders. The debate would have to take place before the dissolution of parliament in the week beginning 23 March.
Oliver wrote: “This is our final offer, and to be clear, given the fact this has been a deeply unsatisfactory process and we are within a month of the short campaign, the prime minister will not be participating in more than one debate.”
The move by No 10 shows that the prime minister is determined to achieve one of two goals – kill the debates altogether or ensure that they turn into what one senior Tory has described as a “democratic bore-athon” which would dilute the impact of Nigel Farage. Oliver said the debate should include Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nicola Sturgeon, the Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, and the Green leader, Natalie Bennett. Nigel Dodds, the DUP leader, should be allowed to make the case for why he should attend.
The main UK parties were quick to condemn the No 10 tactics. The deputy prime minister tweeted the prime minister to say: “The British public want the debates so let’s get on with it. Stop holding them to ransom by trying to dictate the terms.”
Douglas Alexander said in a statement: “We continue to support the broadcasters proposals, including for seven-way debates alongside a two-way debate. But this is an outrageous attempt from the prime minister to bully the broadcasters into dropping their proposals for a head-to-head debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.”
John Prescott, the former Labour deputy prime minister, tweeted: “Cameron knows Ed Miliband would destroy him in a one-on-one debate. Our PM is nothing but a coward and a [chicken].”