The prospect of any repeat of the 2010 election TV debates appeared to be drawing to a close on Thursday night as exasperated broadcasters desperately suggested they might screen the events by replacing an absent David Cameron with an empty chair.
The high-risk proposal is fraught with legal difficulties because of broadcasters’ obligation to remain politically impartial, but they say was forced on them because of Downing Street’s continuing refusal to allow the prime minister to participate in the debates without various pre-conditions being met.
Having made a “final” offer on Wednesday night of agreeing to appear in one seven-sided TV debate, Cameron said on Thursday he was not running away from democratic scrutiny and said he was merely “unblocking the logjam” created by the broadcasters’ inept handling of the issue.
Meanwhile, Miliband accused him of “cowering behind the Downing Street sofa” and his aides are pushing the broadcasters to “empty-chair” Cameron in the head-to-head debate.
The initial private response of the broadcasters was to try to face Cameron down and threaten to press ahead with three televised debates without the Tory leader, including a supposed head-to-head debate between the two potential prime ministers that had been due to be aired a week before the election.
One source said the thinking among the broadcasters was that they could still hold the debates and if specific people did not want to turn up that would be their decision. The issue is particularly pertinent for Channel 4 and Sky, who were due to air a head-to-head debate between Miliband and Cameron scheduled for 30 April.
But the broadcasters know any exclusion of the prime minister in the week before the election, even in the context of his refusal to attend, could fall foul of the tight broadcasting rules on impartiality. The value to Miliband of a debate without an opponent is anyway limited.
Televised elections debates, long part of the political scene in the United States and France, first appeared in the UK in 2010, when the then party leaders agreed to three three-way debates. But this time the negotiations have been beset by the Conservatives and others raising objections, with Cameron insisting he would not participate if the Greens were not included before later insisting that the DUP from Northern Ireland should join.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and the stand-out beneficiary of the debates in 2010, suggested he was prepared to stand in for Cameron against Miliband and defend the government record. He accused Cameron of lofty pomposity and acting “as if they’re ordering a drink in the drawing room of Downton Abbey, telling everybody else what to do”.
The deputy prime minister added: “If David Cameron is too busy or important to defend the record of this government then I offer myself. I’ll do it instead, I am assuming the role of just about the only person who is willing to step up to the plate and defend the record of this government.”
He later wrote to Miliband to make the formal offer, but Labour is holding out for a head-to-head debate with Cameron in which they are convinced Miliband could shine and confound the public’s expectations.
But the scale of the mess was underlined when the DUP threatened a judicial challenge after the BBC Trust yesterday said it had rejected the Northern Ireland party’s appeal to be added to the seven-party-debate format alongside the Welsh and Scottish nationalist parties.
A BBC panel said there was no evidence the corporation had made an “error in principle” or acted unfairly by refusing the party’s claim.
Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the DUP, said the decision by the BBC trust was “wrong, immoral and unjust”.
A DUP source accused the broadcasters of being obtuse and incompetent, adding: “As things stand, if we go to judicial review, there’s no realistic chance that that won’t take things past dissolution, thus triggering the Tories’ red line that the debates must not take place after the dissolution of parliament.”
Cameron and his team have clearly made the calculation that he risks more from attending the debates than he does from the temporary ridicule he faces for backing away from a confrontation with a man whom he has dismissed as unfit for government.
The public in polls overwhelmingly support the principle of TV debates, and have so far suggested it is the Conservative leader who is blocking them going ahead. It is less clear whether the prime minister’s credibility as a leader will be damaged from refusing what is only a relatively recent innovation in British electoral politics.
Cameron said: “What I’ve done is unblock the logjam that I think I’m afraid the broadcasters helped to create, and said: ‘Right, let’s get on, let’s have the debate that matters the most, which is the one which gives everybody a say, and let’s get on with it before the campaign.’ So, hopefully by putting forward this proposal for a debate, we’ll actually see one take place,” he told reporters.
A Ukip spokesman said Cameron was “acting chicken”. Party leader Nigel Farage, said: “He’s sabotaged the whole thing. He’s now saying he’ll do one debate, but he’ll do it before the proper campaign starts so it’s not going to be a proper debate”.
The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said: “David Cameron is clearly running scared of having to answer for his government’s record of failure and incompetence – and this arrogance in trying to lay down the law is all about getting out of debates, not taking part.”
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