David Cameron has indicated in an interview with the BBC that he would be willing to allow Nigel Farage to join the TV debates before the General Election as long as the Green Party leader also came. He also proposed that there be a separate debate for the “two people who could actually be prime minister”.
Over the past few weeks the Prime Minister has been accused of stalling the negotiations about the debates. However behind the scenes the real stumbling block for all three major parties is how to deal with UKIP.
There are also risks of legal challenges, because British television cannot give an advantage to one party over another unless it can show it is being proportionate: ie that there is no point in featuring the party on a particular broadcast.
The Liberal Democrats threatened legal action in 2010 unless Nick Clegg was allowed in to the debate between the Labour and Conservative leaders. This prompted the leader of UKIP at the time, Lord Rannoch, to write to the BBC complaining that he was left out.
If Nigel Farage is let into the debate, it would make it hard to stop the Green Party as they have one MP. Appearing on the BBC’s Breakfast programme, Mr Cameron said: “I’m keen to have debates before the next election.”
He claimed that he was “pro-TV debates” but did not want them to over-shadow the main campaign. Cameron said: “I’m very keen to examine all the formats that we could have and I’ve suggested that perhaps we should have one debate with all the parties in, so that everyone can have their say, and perhaps we could have a debate where the two people who could actually be prime minister debate directly with each other.
“I don’t think you could have a party like UKIP, without an MP, without the Greens, who have got an MP. So there are quite a lot of issues that have to be ironed out.”
“We can let our teams negotiate in the Autumn for the start of the TV debates before the next election,” he added.
The debates were held for the very first time in Britain in 2010, and were intended to be similar to the US Presidential debates. By arguing his way into them Nick Clegg completely changed the dynamic, because unlike in America, there was a third ‘none of the above’ voice. This made it fairly easy for Clegg to win, as he could be critical of the other two without ever really being pinned down himself.
Today Clegg admits that his party is no longer a protest vote, which would make the debate more balanced. However Farage is now the ‘none of the above’ choice, and he proved in the Europe debate to be a skilled debater. Both of these together mean that party managers would expect him to win a four man debate.
Equally if the main three try to exclude him he would probably win a legal challenge to the format. So the only solution is to bring in the Green as another ‘none of the above’ voice in the debate. This dilutes Farage and makes it almost impossible for anyone to challenge a head-to-head Cameron versus Miliband debate.
If Cameron can get the five man debate out of the way early, he could then beat Miliband later in the campaign and gain maximum electoral advantage.