David Cameron accused of ‘running scared’ over live TV debates
Labour and Lib Dems claim the Prime Minister wants to scupper general election head-to-heads
Andrew Grice has been Political Editor of The Independent since 1998. He was previously Political Editor of The Sunday Times, where he worked for 10 years, and he has been a Westminster-based journalist since 1982. His column, Inside Politics, appears in The Independent each Saturday.
Friday 28 March 2014
David Cameron has been accused of “running scared” of live televised debates with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg at next year’s general election.
Labour and Liberal Democrat officials claim the Conservatives plan to pull the plug on the debates, saying they have ruled out negotiations until after this autumn’s party conferences. Although Downing Street insists that Mr Cameron wants them to go ahead, Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg believe he is getting cold feet and intends to scupper a repeat of the leaders’ showdown first seen in the UK at the 2010 election.
The Prime Minister came under renewed pressure to sign up to debates on the day after Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, held the first of two head-to-head discussions on Europe of the May European Parliament elections.
Mr Farage is expected to demand a place in any general election debates, and Labour and the Lib Dems fear the Tories will use this as cover to scupper a re-run of the 2010 programmes. Labour and the Lib Dems are backing the same formula used last time – three debates between the three main party leaders held three weeks apart.
A Labour source said: “The Conservatives clearly don’t want the debates to go ahead. They are looking for an excuse to move the goalposts. We are not going to give them one. They are extremely worried that Ed Miliband, unmediated by a right-wing press, would come over in a much more positive way in debates.”
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British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (R) and Ukip leader Nigel Farage take part in a debate over Britain's future in the European Union in London (Getty Images)
Mr Clegg told LBC Radio yesterday: “Both Ed Miliband and I have now said that we would sign up to the way in which the leaders' debates were held at the last general election. The Conservatives are dragging their feet. I really don't think they should do that for much longer, because people want to have these debates, they want to hear directly from people, they want to hear the differences, they want to be able to compare and contrast."
A Downing Street source denied that Mr Cameron intended to block the debates, saying he believed they were “here to stay.”
The Prime Minister wants the debates staged earlier than in 2010 so they do not dominate the few weeks before polling day.
Although Labour wants Mr Clegg to take part, it would probably accept a head-to-head between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband. There is speculation that the Tories might offer one or more such debates to give the public “a choice between two prime ministers”.
The Lib Dems believe Wednesday’s Clegg-Farage battle strengthens the case for general election debates. Yesterday the other parties noted that the Ukip leader did not perform so well when questioned on issues outside his EU comfort zone.
Clegg locked horns with the leader of the country's most anti-EU party in the first of two face-to-face debates ahead of forthcoming European Parliament elections (Getty Images)
He came under fire for opposing gay marriage despite recent signals to the contrary and for accusing the EU of having “blood on its hands” by opposing Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Lord Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader, claimed Mr Farage had given “comfort” to Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, who was breaching international law by taking over Crimea.
Mr Clegg said: “It shows quite how extreme people can be like Nigel Farage when their loathing of the European Union becomes so all-consuming that they even end up siding with Vladimir Putin in order to make their point.”
Mr Farage stuck to his guns. Writing for The Independent’s website, he said: “There is a clear pattern of behaviour on how Russia reacts to eastward EU expansion and it’s not with invitations for a tea party and a polite chat… For all their talk of peace, the EU antagonised Mr Putin, knowing what his response would be.”
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