Inside Westminster: Why the leadership debates of 2015 won't happen - even through they should

 

First, the good news. David Cameron is warming to the idea of repeating the 2010 televised debates between the three main party leaders at the 2015 general election. 

And now the bad. It is still not certain that they will take place next time. The fly in the ointment is the UK Independence Party. It does not lack rich backers and is likely to take legal action to try to secure a place for Nigel Farage at the podium. Expect this to happen after next May’s European Parliament elections, when Ukip has a very good chance of coming top. Ukip has no MPs – unlike the Green Party, which would have a legitimate claim to be included if Mr Farage were allowed in. The prospect of Ukip’s legal challenge is worrying the BBC. Although Ukip is not designated a major party by the broadcasting regulator Ofcom at present, that could change if it triumphed in a nationwide election only a year before a general election. There will be TV debates before the Euro elections, with Mr Farage going head-to-head with ministers and shadow ministers rather than other leaders, which Ukip will cite as a precedent.

A High Court judge who gave Mr Farage a chair at the general election table would almost certainly kill off the debates. It is a safe bet that Mr Cameron would not take part if the Ukip leader was going to be there. After a heated internal debate, the Conservatives have (just about) decided how to combat Ukip: not attacking them, which only raises their profile, but warning in 2015 that backing them could allow Ed Miliband into Downing Street through the back door by splitting the centre-right vote.

Naturally, the Prime Minister would not want to leave himself open to the charge of running away from the debates. In public, he would remain committed to them. But, as we saw before Britain finally took the plunge with its first American-style debates in 2010, politicians can always find excuses and muddy the waters. Not least by demanding changes to the 76 rules agreed last time (including “no clapping” by the audience) and playing one broadcaster off against another. 

It is clear that the Tories are not prepared to give such a platform to Mr Farage. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are more open-minded, perhaps mischievously rather than out of principle. They know Mr Farage would give Mr Cameron the biggest headache, and so are content to let the Prime Minister wield the veto.

Labour suspects Mr Cameron does not really want debates in 2015, after performing worse than expected in the three which took place last time. But his aides insist the Prime Minister is “really up for it” and has “nothing to fear.” They dismiss as “rewriting history” claims that the debates denied the Tories an overall majority in 2010, saying Mr Cameron “won” the third one.

During this month’s Tory conference, Mr Cameron made his most positive remarks about a 2015 re-run during an interview with Sky News, which is again leading the charge. But he repeated his valid criticism that in 2010, the debates “took all the rest of the life out of the campaign”, arguing they should start earlier because the May 7 date in 2015 is already known now that we have fixed-term parliaments. Spreading out the debates is a good idea; it would allow space for discussion of policies and other issues and let the voters see other frontbenchers as well as three men in suits. Sky is proposing three debates at two-week intervals starting on April 2. The Tories envisage an earlier start. Some Tories favour a single debate, but that would be high risk, since the “loser” would not get a second chance.

Labour believes it has everything to gain from a series of debates. Mr Miliband’s personal ratings are poor but low expectations could work to his advantage. Polling suggests voters like him more when they see him for longer periods. Labour strategists would welcome a chance to convince readers of hostile newspapers he is not the bogeyman they portray.

If they go ahead, the 2015 debates should be different to last time, when the rigid formula ruled out audience participation. A shift towards town hall-style meetings would be welcome. The dynamics would be very different after five years of coalition government. Instead of saying “I agree with Nick” as they did last time, the other leaders would probably want to say the opposite. Nick Clegg could not play the fresh-faced outsider, and would face tricky questions on issues like university tuition fees.

There will be plenty of twists and turns before we know whether we will see leaders’ debates in 2015.  Lessons can be learned from 2010 but anything that makes the public engage with politics is a good thing; last time, the debates surely boosted turnout. The obstacles are not insuperable. It will be a pity if two professions hardly held in high public esteem, the politicians and the media, allow the plug to be pulled.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there