David Cameron has been accused of hiding behind a “smokescreen” to block proposals by broadcasters for three TV debates involving party leaders in the six-week general election campaign next year.
The Prime Minister insisted he wanted the debates to happen, but he argued that it was unfair to include Nigel Farage, as the broadcasters propose, while excluding the Green Party, who also have one MP.
Today the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 announced joint plans to hold three debates in the six weeks before polling day. One would be a head-to-head between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband. The second would involve these two leaders and Nick Clegg, while the third would also include Mr Farage.
Although the broadcasters hope talks with the parties will start within weeks, there is no guarantee that the debates seen for the first time in Britain in 2010 will be repeated.
Mr Cameron said he agreed in principle with TV debates but argued that the format needed to be reworked. “I can’t see how you can have a party in that has an MP in Parliament but not another party,” he said.
Labour sources accused him of using the Greens as a “smokescreen” and, like the Lib Dems, believe he has little intention of allowing the debates to proceed. It is believed that George Osborne, who will oversee the Tories’ election campaign, and Lynton Crosby, the party’s election strategist, are reluctant to see them happen.
The Greens, who pushed the Lib Dems into fifth place in the May European elections, are considering a legal challenge and have launched an online campaign to be included. Natalie Bennett, the party leader, said: “The broadcasters are demonstrating just how out of touch they are with the public mood, and how ridiculously they cling to the idea that the future of politics looks like the past.”
But TV executives argued that they “had to draw the line somewhere”.
Other objections could also play into Mr Cameron’s hands. The Lib Dems are keen on the debates but said it would be wrong to exclude Mr Clegg from one of them. A spokesman said: “We do not accept the proposal that the Lib Dems, as a party of Government, should be prevented from defending our record in one of the TV debates. That is the case we will make strongly in the negotiations that will now take place and we urge the other parties to join us around the negotiating table without excuse or delay.”
Ukip may seek to take part in more than one debate. Mr Farage said: “The decision is better than it could have been. It does at least recognise the increasing popularity of Ukip. However if the political landscape continues to change, we would expect and ask for inclusion in a second debate."
Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister in Scotland, accused the TV companies of excluding the Scottish National Party even though its 80,000 membership makes it the UK’s third biggest political party. But broadcasters replied that there would be separate TV debates in Scotland and Wales, as there were in 2010.
Mr Miliband said: “I hope David Cameron is not going to put up false obstacles to these TV debates happening. Frankly, he should be saying these TV debates will happen, they must happen during the campaign, for my part I’m going to make sure they do.”Reuse content