Conservative strategists will be given privileged access to “spin” the result of the second televised election debate – even though David Cameron has refused to take part in the event, The Independent has learnt.
The BBC has agreed to allow Tory representatives to attend the debate at Methodist Central Hall in London and provide them with access to journalists who will be covering it. The spin doctors will also be interviewed in a live debate “reaction” programme after the main event finishes.
Labour, which said it only found out about the arrangement on Wednesday, said they were “incredulous” that the BBC had made the concession, which has also been extended to the Lib Dems.
Under original plans put forward by the broadcasters the event should have been another seven-way debate including Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg. But it was scrapped after Mr Cameron refused to take part in more than one debate, and replaced with a “challenger’s debate” between the leaders of Labour, the SNP, Ukip, the Greens and Plaid Cymru.
The Lib Dems wanted Nick Clegg to take part but were told it would been seen as effectively “empty-chairing” Mr Cameron. As a concession he will have his own section in a separate, three-way Question Time-style broadcast a week before polling day.
A senior Labour source said the party was outraged that the Conservatives should be given the opportunity to send spin doctors to an event their own leader had boycotted.
“David Cameron should be represented by an empty chair. Instead, he is will be represented by spin doctors,” they said. “We know he doesn’t want a head-to-head debate with Ed Miliband but it now appears that the Conservatives have concluded their spin doctors will do a better job than the Prime Minister.”
But a Tory source said they should be able to put their side of the argument. “This is a desperate tactic to distract from the fact that the pressure is on Miliband,” they said. “It is entirely right and proper that we should be there. We might just send Michael Fallon.”
The BBC said it had invited the Tories and Lib Dems so they could take part in the debate analysis. They added that the corporation needed to ensure that it fulfilled impartiality rules and this was the best way of achieving that.
“We have said from the beginning that we would endeavour to give fair representation to political parties not involved in the debate,” said a BBC source.
Mr Miliband is expected to come under a co-ordinated attack from the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru who will criticise the Labour leader for being a purveyor of “austerity-lite” who represents the “same old” Westminster politics.
The Independent understands that the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru will meet in advance of the debate to discuss tactics. They will call on Mr Miliband to ditch his commitment to continue with public sector cuts and call on him to join a “progressive alliance” to bring an end to austerity.
Mr Miliband must shore up Labour support at the debate against a challenge from the left. Aides said he was determined not to enter a head-to-head with Ms Sturgeon but instead to use it to portray himself as the only viable candidate to unseat the Conservatives.
The Independent has got together with May2015.com to produce a poll of polls that produces the most up-to-date data in as close to real time as is possible.
Click the buttons below to explore how the main parties' fortunes have changed:
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies