Broadcasters have proposed three American-style televised debates between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg at the next general election in a move likely to break the deadlock over leaders’ debates.
BBC, ITV and BSkyB bosses will meet representatives from Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the next two weeks in an attempt to reach a formal agreement on how Britain’s first-ever leaders’ election debates would be staged.
Although Mr Brown agreed in principle to pressure from the opposition parties last month, there have been continuing doubts about whether the programmes would take place amid divisions between broadcasters and politicians about the format.
The three TV companies have now reached a deal amongst themselves and put a firm proposal in writing to all three parties. The brodcasters suggest that they each stage one debate involving all three leaders in the four weeks before polling day. The programmes would be held before the final four days of the campaign and would probably last for at least an hour.
Some politicians, including Mr Brown, had wanted the sessions to start well before the election but the broadcasters believe it would be better to wait until the campaign proper, when public interest would be at its highest. To prevent a row between the parties over who should present the programmes, the TV chiefs propose that it be left up to them to decide that.
They have rejected the idea of a series of two-way debates which would have allowed a head-to-head between Mr Brown and Mr Cameron; one between Mr Brown and Mr Clegg and one between Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg. That would have caused divisions among the broadcasters, all of whom would have wanted to stage the Brown versus Cameron contest.
The TV companies have made no proposal at this stage for a wider range of debates including senior figures such as the Chancellor Alistair Darling and his opposite numbers George Osborne and Vince Cable. Such programmes have not been ruled out but the broadcasters want to “nail down” the leaders’ debates to avoid being bogged down in negotiations about whether other frontbenchers should hold their own series.
Previous attempts to organise televised debates at British elections have run into the sand amid a failure to agree on the format. Usually, opposition leaders have requested a TV showdown but been turned down by the prime minister of the day. In 1997, the roles were reversed when John Major challenged Tony Blair but the parties were unable to reach agreement on the format of the debates and who would chair them. Labour, which enjoyed a commanding opinion poll lead, was accused of stalling the negotiations because it did not want to risk a debate.
Some hurdles still remain before the current negotiations succeed. The Scottish National Party may take legal action if Alex Salmond, its First Minister in the Scottish Government, is not allowed to take part in any debate screened north of the border. The party insists that it does not want to go to court and would prefer to reach agreement with the broadcasters.
The Liberal Democrats favour as many debates as possible and Labour is also thought to be keen to involve other politicians on issues such as the economy, public services and foreign affairs. Tory officials say they are not against the idea, accusing Mr Brown of hindering progress by “dithering” over whether he would take part when Sky proposed the leaders’ debates.
Supporters of the programmes insist they could help to bridge the gap between politicians and voters in the wake of the controversy over MPs' expenses.