Broadcasters have announced that they intend to go ahead with plans for three televised leaders' debates during the general election, despite Prime Minister David Cameron saying he will only partake in one before campaigning begins.
BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 have all said they will continue with the debates as originally planned on the 2nd, 16th and 30th April, even if this means effectively "empty-chairing" the Prime Minister.
Mr Cameron's chief spin doctor responding by telling broadcasters it is "disappointing" they will not take up his offer.
Earlier this week, Mr Cameron issued an ultimatum by saying he would appear in only one 90-minute televised debate featuring at least seven party leaders, to take place ahead of the formal start of the campaign on 30 March.
In a statement to broadcasters, Downing Street said the decision was the Prime Minister's "final offer".
The moved automatically rule out a head-to-head debate between Mr Cameron and Labour party leader Ed Miliband, who responded by accusing the Prime Minister of "running scared".
Election Analysis: The Key Voters
Election Analysis: The Key Voters
1/6 Settled Silvers
These are the comfortably-off over-60s, still in work or drawing a decent pension – or both – who are enjoying their entitlements such as the Winter Fuel Allowance, free bus passes and free TV licence. They are worried about immigration and Europe. Both the Conservatives – who are pledging to keep benefits for wealthier pensioners – and Ukip want their votes
2/6 Squeezed Semis
Slightly older than the Harassed Hipsters, they are the second key group for Labour’s family-focused election strategy. They are married couples on low to middle incomes who own unpretentious semi-detached homes in suburban areas. In 2001, these were the Pebbledash People sought by the Conservatives. Now the pebbledash is gone and a modest conservatory has been built at the back
3/6 Aldi Woman
In 1997 and 2001 she was Worcester Woman – a middle-class Middle Englander shopping at Marks & Spencer and Waitrose. Today, the age of austerity means she still goes to Waitrose for her basic food shop but cannily switches to Aldi for her luxury bargains such as Parma ham and prosecco. Identified by Caroline Flint, she is a key target of both Labour and the Conservatives
4/6 Glass Ceiling Woman
In her thirties or forties, she has an established career under her belt, perhaps in the “marzipan layer” – one position below the still male-dominated senior executive level. She is now, according to Nick Clegg, forced into making the “heart-breaking choice” between staying at home to bring up her children and going to work and forking out for high-cost, round-the-clock childcare
5/6 Harassed Hipsters
One of the two key groups identified by Labour as crucial to hand Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street. Well-paid professional couples, often with children, they live in diverse urban and metropolitan areas rather than the suburbs. More comfortably off than most swing voters, they are time poor – struggling to balance raising a young family with busy work schedules
These are mainly first-time voters, though some are in their twenties – students and digital-age generation renters helping to fuel the “Green Surge”. Idealists, but with no tribal loyalty to any party, they are anti-austerity, middle class, living in urban areas. Despite studying at university or recently graduated, they are struggling to find decent jobs and want cheaper housing and a higher minimum wage
However, following turbulent exchanges on the debates at Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons on Wednesday, Sky News and Channel 4 said they were ready to move the two-header debate to another date preferred by Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband. The new statement made clear that this offer remains on the table.
Major broadcasters responded by urging the Prime Minister to "reconsider" his refusal to take part in these shows.
In a joint statement released today, the broadcasters said they would stick to plans for a seven-way debate involving Cameron, Labour's Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems and the leaders of the Greens, Ukip, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru on ITV on 2 April.
This would be followed by a second show on BBC featuring the same line-up on 16 April, and a final one-on-one clash between the Tory and Labour leaders on Sky News and Channel 4 on 30 April - exactly a week before the 7 May election.
In a letter to Mr Cameron's director of communications, the broadcasters wrote: "We very much hope that all invited leaders will participate in the broadcast debates.
"However, in the end all we can do - as impartial public service broadcasters - is to provide a fair forum for debates to take place. It will always remain the decision of individual leaders whether or not to take part."
The statement was promptly used as a reason to further taunt Mr Cameron, with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg tweeting the Conservative leader hadn't "got his own way".
Mr Miliband said the Prime Minister risked revealing himself to be a "weak leader" if he refused to take part, adding: "It is make your mind up time for David Cameron."
"He can keep running from these debates with me and show himself to be a weak leader running from his record.
"Or he can agree to the debates which the British people deserve and that our democracy needs."
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said the broadcasters had called the Prime Minister's bluff.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage said he would "accept the challenge" of taking part, even though he preferred the broadcasters' earlier proposal for a four-way debate featuring himself, Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg.
He said: "I'm pleased that the broadcasters have stood firm at last but it would have been far better had they stuck with their original proposal which included fewer parties. But nonetheless we accept the challenge."
Green leader Natalie Bennett said Mr Cameron's refusal to accept a "very fair" format damaged the reputation of UK politics.
"The fact is Mr Cameron, with his stance, is really doing further damage to trust in British politics," she told the BBC.
Additional reporting by PAReuse content