PM faces being 'empty-chaired' as TV debates are expected to go ahead

Cowboy hat on chair

Broadcasters are expected to press ahead with the TV election debates and believe they have legal grounds to “empty-chair” the Tories on the basis that they turned down a reasonable invitation to attend.

Related: In ducking the TV debates, David Cameron displays a contempt worthy of Downton Abbey | John Harris

Channel 4, ITV, Sky and the BBC were discussing “a final offer” from No 10 on Thursday, under which David Cameron would attend one debate with the leaders of six other parties held the week before parliament’s dissolution. Cameron, criticised by other political parties for his reluctance, said he was only seeking to break the logjam created by the broadcasters’ handling of the debates.

Broadcasting industry insiders said they were bound by impartiality rules but are determined that no single party will dictate the terms of the debates.

One source said the thinking among the broadcasters was that they will 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 Ed Miliband and Cameron on 30 April. The Conservatives are reluctant to risk a high-stakes debate with the Labour leader a week before polling day. It is understood that the broadcasters hope to issue a joint statement later on Thursday.

Labour sources suggested the broadcasters could hold what would have been the Miliband-Cameron debate in a Question Time or town hall format in which the broadcaster would state the prime minister had declined to attend but set out Conservative views through the questions put to Miliband.

In theory, guidelines set by the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, allow the networks to go ahead without Cameron as long as they show “due impartiality” during their coverage.

This could be achieved by having someone acting as a representative – such as a political journalist – who would balance the broadcast by giving the views of the missing party.

Ofcom rules also state that broadcasters do not “automatically have to accord more coverage to the major parties, compared with other parties and independent candidates with ‘significant views and perspectives’.”

The broadcasters have suggested two seven-way debates and one head-to-head debate between Miliband and Cameron. Labour claimed Cameron’s decision belied his central electoral strategy of projecting himself as prime ministerial in comparison with a weak and accident-prone Labour leader.

Labour said Cameron could cower “behind the Downing Street sofa” and hide from the 22 million people that watched the election debates last time.

Labour said it did not want to debate just with Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg since it had to be a debate between the two men likely to be prime minister.

Meanwhile, there is a chance the Democratic Unionist party is considering a court challenge to its exclusion from the seven-way debate that includes the Welsh and Scottish nationalists.

Accusing Cameron of “cowering from the public”, Miliband urged the prime minister to say yes to a two-way debate. He said: “The British people deserve this debate. I’ll debate him any time, any place, anywhere. He should stop ducking and weaving and he should name the date.”

On Wednesday, Downing Street made its final offer to broadcasters. Downing Street ruled out a one-to-one debate 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 from the other political parties. Douglas Alexander, the chair of Labour’s election campaign, accused No 10 of an “outrageous” attempt to bully the broadcasters.

Speaking on his weekly radio phone-in show on LBC on Thursday morning, Clegg said he couldn’t get over the “lofty pomposity of the Conservatives”. He said: “It’s as if they think they’re ordering a drink in the drawing room of Downton Abbey, telling everybody else what they should do. It’s not for one party to grandly tell everybody else what’s going to happen.”

He offered to stand in for the prime minister in a head-to-head with Miliband: “If David Cameron is too busy and too important to defend he record of this government, then I offer myself.”

The former Liberal Democrat leader and chair of the party’s election campaign, Paddy Ashdown, accused Cameron of being “frit” and pointed out that the debate proposed by Downing Street would be held before the Conservative party had published its election manifesto.

Alastair Campbell, former director of communications for Tony Blair, called the development “democratically wrong and morally cowardly”. He said the prime minister was “wriggling and weaselling” out of debates and he thought Miliband would probably persevere and take part in debates without Cameron. “Everybody knows that Craig Oliver has a brief to make sure these debates do not happen,” Campbell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He admitted that he had advised Blair against debates before the 1997 election. “I was worried that the focus of the campaign would all be about these debates, but they’ve now happened and that was 20 years ago. And what’s more, they happened because David Cameron, no less, said back in 2010 they were fundamental to the democratic process.” Campbell added: “If you go around saying that Ed Miliband is the most terrible, weak, useless leader that we’ve ever had, why in that case won’t he debate against him?”

A Ukip spokesman said Cameron was “acting chicken”. Party leader Nigel Farage, speaking on ITV’s Loose Women, 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 and Ofcom, the regulator, said there were four major parties in British politics – Lib, Lab, Con and us – and on that same day he said ‘well, surely the Greens have to be involved’. And now there’s going to be actually, a debate – if it happens at all – with more people than we’ve got sitting on this panel now. How is it going to work?”

The Green party said Cameron’s “swerve” would further damage trust in the political system. “Not only is Cameron’s announcement cowardly but it also shows his contempt for the electorate,” the party said, adding that Natalie Bennett was very much looking forward to the debates.

The Scottish National party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, accused the prime minister of running scared. “This arrogance in trying to lay down the law is all about getting out of debates, not taking part,” she said.

Powered by article was written by Patrick Wintour, Tara Conlan and Frances Perraudin, for on Thursday 5th March 2015 16.50 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010