In Depth

Now what? ‘Gutless’ Cameron refuses to debate Miliband

Lib Dems say if Cameron won’t defend coalition’s record on TV, then Nick Clegg will step in

The Mole

The proposed televised leaders debates are hanging in the balance today after David Cameron refused to take part in a head-to-head debate with Ed Miliband. The MP says he will agree to one debate among all seven party leaders – but only if it takes place before the end of March.

Cameron is being accused alternatively of “being chicken” and of “bullying” the broadcasters, who are left with the dilemma: do they go ahead with the three debates as planned – the head-to-head and the two ‘group of seven’ debates, all scheduled for April - and ‘empty chair’ the Prime Minister?

This raises the spectacle of Ed Miliband answering questions on his own – though the Lib Dems have come in with a last-minute solution, namely that Nick Clegg could stand in for Cameron against the Labour leader.

Former Lib Dem leader Lord [Paddy] Ashdown said this morning: “If the PM hasn’t got the guts to stand up for the record of the government, we would be. Nick Clegg would be there.”

Cameron’s flat refusal to debate Miliband and his agreement to take part in only one ‘group of seven’ debate as long as it takes place in the week of March 23 comes in a letter from Craig Oliver, Cameron’s director of communications, to Sue Inglish, who chairs the broadcasters’ leaders’ debates committee.

Oliver accuses the broadcasters of allowing the debate negotiations to descend into “chaos” by never consulting Number Ten about the schedule when the Prime Minister had made it clear he did not want the debates to interrupt the “short campaign” (1 April onwards). 

The letter concludes: “This is our final offer, and to be clear, given the fact this has been a deeply unsatisfactory process and we are within a month of the short campaign, the Prime Minister will not be participating in more than one debate.”

It is no secret, of course, that on the advice of their election guru Lynton Crosby, the Tories have tried everything possible to kill the debates stone dead or at least ensure  there are so many leaders involved that few viewers will stay tuned to the resulting “bore-athon”.

Crosby believes that, as the incumbent, Cameron has nothing to gain from the televised debates and plenty to lose. Depending on you believe, that’s because Nigel Farage could wipe the floor with him, and/or Ed Miliband could come across a lot better than the Tory propaganda machine has led the public to expect. 

What particularly irks the Prime Minister’s opponents is that it was Cameron himself who, in 2010, declared the party leader debates  “vital to the democratic process in the modern media age” – a point Alastair Campbell makes in his blog today. 

“How pathetic it is, five years on," writes Campbell, "to watch his wriggling and weaseling to avoid them.”

It is now up to the broadcasters to decide who blinks first - do they ‘empty chair’ Cameron and go ahead with the proposed head-to-head televised debate, with Jeremy Paxman asking the questions in front of an invited audience and Ed Miliband appearing on his own?

“It will be absurd,” Campbell told the Today programme.

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