It is a moving picture as I write, but David Cameron’s insistence that he will only do one TV debate with all the parties is the latest episode in a sorry saga that reflects badly on the Prime Minister
The TV companies had set the dates for three debates, two with seven parties and a head to head between Cameron and Miliband, before the Prime Minister’s very late move on Wednesday night. So will the TV companies back down or stick to their format and dare to empty chair him?
The endless wrangles have been yet another blow to the prestige of politicians. After 2010, the public now expect their potential rulers to subject themselves to this sort of scrutiny. This principle should have underpinned the discussions this time acknowledging that it was going to be more complicated than five years ago. This is because we have a coalition, and potentially other players because of the fracturing of politics away from the traditional parties.
Instead of trying to find a way through the difficulties, the TV companies have had to engage in a game of cat and mouse with David Cameron. The Tories have the age old fear of all incumbents that they can only lose by taking part. They fear putting themselves on the same level as their opponents. They also fear a “Natalie Bennett” episode.
This is nothing new. In my early years as a broadcaster my attempts to get constituency debates between candidates were often thwarted by what I came to call the “coward’s clause”. Election law required all candidates to agree to take part. It gave incumbent MPs a veto and both Labour and Tory MPs played that card. Later on the law was changed to say that all must be invited to take part but none could veto. Hence the opportunity for an empty chair arises in relation to the 2015 Election Debates.
It will be very interesting as one can’t believe that David Cameron would risk an empty chair but neither can one imagine Sky and Channel 4 showing Ed Miliband taking part alone on April 30.
Leaving the question of Tory participation aside, there are other problems with the format of the debates as proposed by the TV companies until Wednesday night. . We are not going to have a threesome of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. I think the coalition partners and their potential replacement as the head of the government should have debated together. Cameron and Clegg would both have had to defend their record in government and criticise each other with Miliband throwing in his two-penneth. The coalition’s record would have been debated.
Given the Lib Dems current weak showing, I agree with the Cameron Miliband head to head bringing us a debate between the only two people who credibly can be Prime Minister. Cameron has now specifically rejected this.
But the third debate should have only involved parties fielding candidates throughout the United Kingdom. The arrangements, if they stand, for not one, but two debates, on April 2 on ITV and the BBC on April 16 are a mess. 7 parties will take part including the SNP and Plaid. The argument for the latter two is presumably on the basis that they could be players in deciding the policies of the UK government in coalition negotiations. Well what about the Democratic Unionists? They may well be players in the post election stramash. This is a fair point made by Cameron on Wednesday night. It seems the Prime Minister wants one debate with eight candidates.
Leaving aside the politics of the “hydra” debates, what will voters get out of seven or eight people all trying to have their say. There is a great danger it will either be a messy shouting match or so dull and formulaic that people will switch off.
CONSTITUENCY FOCUS: HEYWOOD AND MIDDLETON.
UKIP are fading a little in the polls and the North West is not the most promising region of the country for them. Some have their eyes on Bootle where Deputy UKIP leader Paul Nuttall faces a massive Labour majority. More likely is Heywood and Middleton where last autumn’s by election left Labour’s Liz McInness just 617 ahead of UKIP.
She should be saved by the bigger turnout of Labour voters in a General Election but a word of caution. UKIP have a good candidate in John Bickley and working class voters, disillusioned by Labour, can see from the by election evidence that three hundred odd votes could have seen Labour ousted.
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