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

  • @IndyPolitics

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.