Many in the Conservative leadership believe that David Cameron made a serious mistake in agreeing to three election debates between the three main party leaders in 2010.
Tony Blair, when he was leader of the opposition but enjoying a comfortable poll lead in 1997, resisted the temptation to challenge the then prime minister, John Major, to televised debates. He won comfortably, and as Prime Minister brushed off subsequent invitations to election debates, irrespective of who led the Conservatives.
Cameron, in 2010, facing a weakened Prime Minister in the shape of Gordon Brown, felt confident in winning head-to-head live contests, but fell into a trap devised by the head of Sky News, John Ryley, who offered a debate, but one also including Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats. As Sky, the BBC and ITV confirmed similar invitations, and Brown felt he had nothing to lose, the improbable beneficiary of the TV circus was a little known politician, with no record to defend, who enjoyed a brief surge in the polls, sufficient to win his party a significant role in government, and the Deputy Prime Minister post for himself.
Clegg will benefit little from the format currently on offer from the broadcasters (now joined by Channel 4): three debates, featuring Cameron v Miliband, Cameron v Miliband v Clegg, and Cameron v Miliband v Clegg v Farage. It is Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, who stands to gain most, mostly at Cameron’s expense. Not surprisingly, Cameron has tried to counter with a format that partially neutralizes the Farage effect, by including Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, in the third debate, neatly exposing the left flank of both Miliband and Clegg.
Equally unsurprisingly, those strange bedfellows – Miliband, Clegg and Farage – have jointly written to Cameron urging him to accept the broadcasters’ formula. Equally improbable bedfellows – The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph – have joined the chorus. They all seem to have misunderstood how TV debates are organised, and why Cameron is likely to win the argument.
The broadcasters may have agreed a package, but the legal position is that each debate is the editorial responsibility of a single broadcaster. If – say – Sky is responsible for Cameron v Miliband, and ITV for Cameron v Miliband v Clegg, neither can make an invitation to Cameron dependent on his accepting an invitation to a third debate mounted by the BBC or Channel 4. If the broadcaster of the third proposed debate chooses to threaten Cameron with an “empty chair”, such a sanction could not be used by the broadcasters of the other two debates. Indeed, it would be intolerable – and almost certainly illegal – if all the leading broadcasters tried to gang up on any leading politician in that way.
For Cameron, just having two debates would be an excellent outcome. If the third debate went ahead without him, it would down-grade all three of his opponents to a lower level (and it would be very surprising if Miliband did not see the obvious danger he faced in such a format). Indeed, the third broadcaster would probably back out at that point, and the “broadcaster collective” would have to re-think, as just two debates, with Clegg only taking part in one, would look like a backward step from 2010.
So I expect Cameron will win his point about the Greens with the broadcasters, which will then force Miliband, Clegg and Farage to fall into line (having argued so forcefully for Cameron to accept “the broadcasters’ formula”). But even that might not settle the issue. If the third debate is to be broadcast in Scotland, the claims from Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP and Scottish First Minister, to join the line-up would be strong. In 2010, Alex Salmond lost a court case in which the SNP tried to block the broadcast in Scotland of leader debates that excluded the SNP. This time around, with the SNP forecast to win 70% of the seats in Scotland in May, any broadcaster who chose to offer Scottish viewers four or even five party leaders, but not Sturgeon, would risk a massive audience backlash.
If Sturgeon makes the cut, expect the likes of Plaid Cymru and the parties in Northern Ireland to demand a place in the TV spotlight. Yet the surge in support for the SNP since the referendum puts the outcome of the 2010 court case in a different perspective. If it were the BBC which found itself holding the hot potato of the third debate, the stakes would be very high.
It is even possible that no acceptable formula for debates is found. Cameron would then certainly be blamed for such an outcome: but Conservative Central Office would undoubtedly treat it as a welcome pre-election victory.