Will they, won’t they? If so, will it be 3×3 or 2+2? Following the recent debates about Europe between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, the discussions and speculation about the leaders’ TV debates has begun. Clegg wants to debate with Ed Miliband and David Cameron. Cameron wants Miliband on his own or, preferably, no debates at all. Farage wants attention wherever he can find it. Hell will freeze over before Cameron lets Farage in. Only Miliband, it seems, is relaxed about the cast list and format of prospective leaders’ debates. This has led seasoned commentators and, privately, senior broadcasters, to express doubt that TV leaders’ debates will happen in 2015.
That would be extraordinary. Whatever one’s view of the 2010 debates (and their impact on the eventual result is still contested) there is incontrovertible and broadly accepted evidence that they raised interest, engagement and turnout, particularly among young people. To deprive the public of such an important democratic innovation in transparency and accountability would be a seriously retrograde step.
A mythology has settled on parts of the Conservative party that the debates lost Cameron the election. The House of Lords is currently conducting an inquiry into the 2010 debates and their impact and its conclusions are awaited with interest. But it seems clear to me that there was little appetite before, during or since the 2010 election for a majority Tory government. The first debate, it is true, ignited ‘Cleggmania’, as the relatively unknown, telegenic Liberal Democrat leader burst into the consciousness of a lot of people for the first time. But this was shortlived and the Liberal Democrats ended up losing seats.
Debates remain manifestly in the Liberal Democrats’ interest. Although more difficult this time, as Clegg will have to defend the coalition’s record, with their dire ratings and need for re-differentiation from the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats need them badly. Miliband excels in town hall-style events – the format favoured for the debates – and those who know him better than I do are confident he would do well. He is also the insurgent, or ‘change’, candidate, a mantle no longer available to Clegg. The broadcasters’ starting point will be 3×3 – the same as 2010. This may provoke challenges from the United Kingdom Independence party and other smaller parties – but unless Ukip start winning Westminster by-elections the broadcasters should be able to resist these demands.
So it is likely to be Cameron and the Tories who decide if the debates happen or not. Given the high stakes, decisions are likely to be taken nearer the time, with a close eye on the opinion polls. That is a shame, as the last thing any politician should want between now and the campaign is a long drawn-out debate about the debates, rather than a focus on policy and substance. The media will rightly give a rough ride to the politician or party that stops the debates happening, especially given the 2010 precedent. Their opponents will also have a field day with the challenge: ‘What are you frightened of?’ That is why it is in the interests of all three of the main Westminster parties to sign up in principle now, while leaving negotiations on the detail until nearer the time.
Ben Bradshaw MP is former secretary of state for culture, media and sport