TV election debates: Broadcasters bow to Tory demand that Nick Clegg will not appear with opposition leaders

Yet in a victory for the Lib Dem leader, he will take part in a three-way contest with David Cameron and Ed Miliband

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David Cameron vetoed Nick Clegg taking part in one of the TV election leaders’ debates, it emerged last night, as the months of wrangling and farce over the format came to an end with a final deal between political parties and broadcasters.

According to sources close to the negotiations, the broadcasters agreed to a Conservative demand that the Lib Dem leader should not participate in a BBC programme on 16 April featuring Ed Miliband and other opposition leaders. Yet in a victory for the Deputy Prime Minister, he will take part in a three-way contest between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband on 30 April – originally set up as a two-way battle between the Tory and Labour leaders – exactly one week before polling day. However, the three will not debate with each other but will appear separately on the programme.

The final agreement on four election programmes was published yesterday afternoon, after the Prime Minister earlier this month rejected the broadcaster’s original proposal of two debates featuring all seven leaders and a final contest of Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband.

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On 26 March there will be a live question-and-answer show on Channel 4 and Sky News with Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband, when the two leaders will take questions separately but not debate with each other (Getty)

The new deal means that the Prime Minister has won the battle of the “empty chair”, because he will now not be the only leader not taking part. It is understood that the Conservatives refused to strike a deal over the BBC programme on 16 April unless Mr Clegg was excluded. The Lib Dems said last night that Mr Clegg was happy to take part in any programme, but the final decision was up to the broadcasters.

The schedule of programmes is as follows: (1) 26 March – a live question-and-answer show on Channel 4 and Sky News with Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband, presented by Jeremy Paxman and Kay Burley, when the two leaders will take questions separately but not debate with each other; (2) 2 April – a debate with seven party leaders, including the PM, to be broadcast on ITV and chaired by Julie Etchingham; (3) 16 April – a debate between opposition party leaders hosted by the BBC, with David Dimbleby moderating; (4) 30 April – a BBC  Question Time special with Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg, presented by Dimbleby. The party leaders will take questions from the audience but not debate with each other.

Mr Cameron has refused all along to debate with Mr Miliband directly, leading to accusations of “cowardice” from Labour.

 

But controversy raged last night over the 16 April BBC programme of the five opposition leaders. A source close to the negotiations said in reference to Mr Clegg’s absence that it was “extraordinary that one party leader is dictating the terms for a leader of another party”. The Lib Dems and Tories refused to comment on the revelation that the Conservatives had requested that Mr Clegg not appear. A Lib Dem source said: “We don’t know what the Conservatives are saying to the broadcasters.”

A Labour Party spokesperson said: “We have … with great reluctance, agreed to a change in the format of the programme on 30th April. But due to the cowardice of David Cameron, the two leaders will not be on stage at the same time to debate with each other.

“The Conservative Party has also objected to the second debate on 16th April. We have made clear that we will attend this second debate. But, again at the Conservative Party’s insistence, Nick Clegg is to be excluded. The whole country will understand the reasons for this: the Prime Minister wants to minimise the scope of televised debates between himself and Ed Miliband.”

A Lib Dem spokesman said: “If it was down to us, we would be in every TV debate and every interview... But we think that the politicians and broadcasters have ducked and dived on this long enough and just need to get on with it now and ensure the public have the opportunity, however flawed the format, to scrutinise their politicians.”

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On 30 April, David Dimbleby will host a BBC Question Time special with Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg (BBC)

A Conservative Party source said: “If anything, this is an improvement on the deal we were offered last week. The PM has always believed too many debates would suck the life out of the campaign.”

The BBC did not deny that it had acceded to a request from the Conservatives not to invite Mr Clegg. If anyone accused Mr Cameron of barring Mr Clegg from taking part in the 16 April debate that was “up to them”.

Insiders suspect the BBC acquiesced to Tory demands in order to preserve relations with Downing Street ahead of negotiations over the future of the licence fee.

Those 'final offers' in full

4 March: David Cameron issues his “final offer”, saying he will take part in just one contest featuring at least seven party leaders more than a month before the election in the final week of March, and ruled out a head-to-head debate with Ed Miliband.

17 March: The PM agrees to a seven-way debate on 2 April – after the campaign has started.

21 March: Mr Cameron agrees to take part in three programmes – on 26 March, 2 April and 30 April,  although only the middle one will be an actual debate.

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