Broadcasters stick with debate plan
Broadcasters have rejected David Cameron's call for proposed televised debates between the leaders of the UK's main political parties to be moved forward so they take place before the official start of the general election campaign.
The four main broadcasters have put forward proposals for three live TV debates to be held on April 2, 16 and 30 - with the first clash coming just days after Parliament dissolves on March 30 and the final broadcast a week ahead of the May 7 poll.
But Mr Cameron is calling for the televised showdowns to be staged earlier, warning that the debates "sucked the life out" of the campaign when they were first held in 2010.
In a statement, the BBC and ITV rejected his proposal and reiterated their position that the network debates will go ahead even if any of the invited leaders decline to participate.
The broadcasters said: "We are proposing that the debates should happen within the campaign period at a time when the parties will be setting out policies in their manifestos and when the audience is fully engaged with the election. The 2015 campaign will be nearly six weeks long and there is plenty of time for three debates to be held without overshadowing the rest of the campaign.
"The proposed dates for the network debates are 2, 16 and 30 April. The order of the debates is to be discussed with the parties. In the event that any of the invited party leaders decline to participate, debates will take place with the party leaders who accept the invitation."
The BBC and ITV are planning to stage a debate with seven party leaders - Mr Cameron, Labour's Ed Miliband, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, Ukip's Nigel Farage, the Greens' Natalie Bennett, the Scottish National Party's Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood. Sky News and Channel 4 plan to host a head-to-head between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband, as the two leaders most likely to be Prime Minister following the election.
Mr Clegg accused Mr Cameron of "ducking and weaving" in an "increasingly laughable" attempt to avoid taking part in the debates, after the Prime Minister suggested that Northern Irish parties should be included alongside the seven parties already invited to take part.
The BBC and ITV wrote on Wednesday to the Democratic Unionist Party, confirming that they would not be invited.
BBC director general Lord Hall said the corporation "would not be fulfilling our obligations of impartiality to the voters of Northern Ireland" if it gave a podium to the DUP's Peter Robinson but not to the other four parties with substantial support there.
All five major Northern Irish parties will have the chance to make their case in debates on BBC Northern Ireland and UTV, but inviting them onto the national debates would mean expanding the line-up to 12, with 97% of viewers unable to vote for at least five of those on-screen.
Such an arrangement would be "disproportionate and not in the wider interests of viewers throughout the UK", said the broadcasters.
An ITV spokesman said: " We are satisfied that it is in the public interest to proceed with these proposals as they now stand."
Mr Clegg told LBC radio that at least one of the debates should include only the four main parties, as defined by regulators Ofcom - the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and Ukip.
"Have the great smorgasbord one with everyone under the sun, if you want, as one of the debates," he said.
"But surely the British people want to hear what an independent regulator has identified as the main parties up against one another. It's more manageable than this great family-photo approach that the broadcasters now seem to be advocating."
Mocking the objections raised by the Prime Minister to formats proposed by the broadcasters, Mr Clegg said: " It is getting ludicrous, this endless ducking and weaving, using other people as an alibi for avoiding ... the simple old-fashioned principle: if you've been in power, if you run things, you should be held to account.
"The danger with this increasingly laughable way in which the Conservatives are pushing the broadcasters to invite an ever larger cast of people is that - just imagine what it's going to be like for the viewing public. By the time everyone has done their one-minute introduction, the whole nation will have switched over to Coronation Street."