David Cameron has agreed to take part in a seven-way TV election debate in the first week of April, but is still refusing to take part in a head-to-head debate with Ed Miliband. He has instead said he is willing to be questioned on the same programme as Miliband as long as they do not appear simultaneously.
In the ongoing propaganda war over TV debates, Downing Street released details of what it claimed to be a formal offer put to Cameron on Saturday in which a seven party debate would occur on 2 April, later than the previous Tory final offer of a multi-party debate in the week starting 23 March.
As part of the plan, there would be a series of programmes featuring the party leaders in late March and early April.
- Cameron and Miliband would be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman and then questioned by a studio audience in a Sky/Channel 4 special on 26 March. But the two leaders would appear separately – never sharing the stage, depriving Miliband of the chance to confront Cameron directly.
- Just after the dissolution of parliament at the end of March, Cameron would appear in a debate featuring the leaders of seven parties on ITV on 2 April. This appears to make ITV the big winner of the deal, should it go ahead.
- On 16 April the BBC would host “a challengers’ special” involving the SNP, Ukip, Plaid Cymru the Greens and the DUP. This will anger Nigel Farage, leader of Ukip, who wants the party to be seen as a major player.
- Finally, on 30 April, Cameron, Miliband and the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, would appear separately in half-hour segments in a Question Time-style event hosted by David Dimbleby on BBC1.
Labour said no formal offer had been put to them and the increasingly divided broadcasters, wrong footed by the Conservative decision to leak their Saturday proposals, kept open the idea of a package of debates.
The plans appear to have emerged from backchannel negotiations held between the broadcasters and Downing Street at the weekend. On Sunday, when it was clear that No 10 was on board, it is understood that James Harding, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, approached Labour with the revised proposals.
Labour is said to have rejected the deal, increasingly confident that Miliband will benefit from a head-to-head debate with Cameron.
The Tories had previously been on the back foot over accusations that they wanted to avoid a debate.
Miliband repeatedly accused the prime minister of running scared, and said it was ridiculous that Cameron was willing to be in the same TV studio as him but only so long as they did not debate head-to-head.
On Tuesday, the Tories rushed to claim credit for breaking the impasse. Cameron said: “The broadcasters, led by the BBC, have come forward with a new offer of television programmes for the general election, including a televised debate, and I accepted that deal on Saturday.
“It’s now for other parties to make clear what they’re going to do in respect of this deal that has been put forward, and that I have accepted.”
He went on: “An offer’s been made, a deal’s been accepted, now the other parties must make clear that they accept this deal too, otherwise they will have to bear the responsibility.
“That’s what happened: a new offer put forward by the broadcasters, led by the BBC, to me, I accepted it, in full, on Saturday. So, I’m helping to make this debate go ahead.”
A Lib Dem spokesman said: “It’s good news that we are finally making progress towards a sensible solution on the TV debates. The latest proposals from the broadcasters are welcomed by the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg will take part in the events that he’s been invited to.”
Labour, which had been demanding a head-to-head contest between Miliband and Cameron, appeared caught out by the Tories’ announcement. A spokesman said: “The public are not going to be fooled. Back-to-back interviews are not a TV debate. David Cameron is willing to be in the same TV studio at the same time as Ed Miliband, but he is not willing to debate him. Everyone knows why.”
On Tuesday evening Miliband said: “I’m fighting for the debate between me and David Cameron which the British people want. We now have the tawdry spectacle of the prime minister going to any length to avoid that debate. I say to David Cameron, even at this late stage: agree to this debate which the British people deserve.”
Party sources claimed Cameron had either painted exploratory talks as a formal offer, or the BBC struck a deal with No 10 on Saturday before discussing it with other political parties, raising questions about its impartiality.
Ukip was also caught unawares. “The only proposal that we are aware of from the broadcasters was for three debates,” a spokesman said.
In a joint statement on Tuesday night, the broadcasters said they would work to implement the revised plan. “In recent days the broadcasters have had detailed discussions with a number of the parties with the aim of delivering impartial debates and other programmes in the runup to the general election.
“We welcome David Cameron’s willingness to participate in the first TV debate on 2 April. The broadcasters are continuing to work with all the political parties on programmes scheduled for 26 March, 16 April and 30 April.”
Some members of the broadcasters’ coalition are understood to have been uneasy about agreeing only to one debate featuring Cameron – in the other programmes, the prime minister would appear separately from the other leaders.
“With hindsight we might have acted differently but the most important thing was that the broadcasters were seen to be acting together,” said one source with knowledge of the negotiations. Another put it more succinctly: “It’s a bit crap, isn’t it?”, describing the final outcome as a “worst-case scenario”.
“ITV has won,” said one TV executive who predicted more disagreement to come. “The interesting thing will be how they orchestrate the other events. Cameron and Miliband [on Sky/Channel 4 News] – who goes first? One will have a massive advantage over the other. And should Nigel Farage be included in Question Time on BBC1? Ukip has just been recognised by Ofcom as a major party.”
Another labelled the outcome as “pathetic. It looks like a BBC/Conservative stitchup. No proper debate like last time”.
Previously the broadcasters had held firm to their proposals for two seven-way debates on BBC1 and ITV, and a single head to head between Cameron and Miliband jointly hosted by Channel 4 and Sky News. But that plan is said to have crumbled as the proposed dates for the debates – and the prospect of “empty chairing” the prime minister – drew near.
Cameron’s willingness to take part in a single TV debate, described by Downing Street earlier this month as its final offer, made it even more difficult for broadcasters to stage a debate without him. “The broadcasters seem to have been split – but not until the final few weeks,” said one industry executive. “The strategy has always been to avoid any confrontation with Cameron.”
The source added: “They have reached agreement but not without dissenting voices. This is not a great outcome.”
ITV was so confident about securing the seven-way leaders’ debate that it is said to have already started building the set for the broadcast, which will be hosted by ITV News presenter Julie Etchingham.
The latest developments appear to be a setback for a digital debate promoted by the Guardian, Telegraph and YouTube for the end of next week. But the timetable being set out by Cameron does not preclude the digital debate.
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