Belfast Telegraph

TV election debates 'will go ahead'

The prospect of televised leaders' debates in the run-up to the election going ahead without David Cameron has moved a step closer after broadcasters rejected the Tory proposal for a single, seven-way showdown to be screened before the campaign gets into full swing.

The four broadcasters - the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 - announced they will stick to their previously-announced plans for three debates during the election campaign, and urged the Prime Minister to "reconsider" his refusal to take part in these shows, including a head-to-head showdown with Ed Miliband.

But Mr Cameron's chief spin doctor Craig Oliver said their response was "disappointing" and restated the Prime Minister's "final position" was for a single debate to take place in the week starting March 23.

Mr Oliver, the Prime Minister's director of communications, wrote to the broadcasters on Wednesday saying the Tory leader would only take part in a si ngle 90-minute debate featuring at least seven leaders, to take place ahead of the formal start of the campaign on March 30.

But in a joint statement, the broadcasters said they would stick to plans for a seven-way debate involving Mr Cameron, Labour's Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems and the leaders of the Greens, Ukip, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru on ITV on April 2, followed by a second show on BBC featuring the same line-up on April 16.

A final one-on-one clash between the Tory and Labour leaders would be broadcast on Sky News and Channel 4 on April 30 - exactly a week before the May 7 election.

In a letter to Mr Oliver, the broadcasters made clear they were ready to go ahead with the debates even if Mr Cameron decides not to take part - effectively "empty-chairing" the Prime Minister.

But Mr Oliver replied: "I made the Prime Minister's final position clear in my last letter - he is willing to do a seven-way debate in the week beginning March 23.

"Clearly it is disappointing that you are not prepared to take him up on that offer.

"I am ready to discuss at your convenience the logistics of making the debate we have suggested happen."

With neither side in the stand-off backing down, the debates are set to go ahead without Mr Cameron's participation.

In the joint letter to Mr Oliver, the broadcasters made clear that they would keep the door open to him to perform a last minute U-turn and agree to take part.

"We very much hope that all invited leaders will participate in the broadcast debates," they said.

"However, in the end all we can do - as impartial public service broadcasters - is to provide a fair forum for debates to take place. It will always remain the decision of individual leaders whether or not to take part."

They added: "Our invitations will remain open to all the invited leaders right up to broadcast. We'll set no deadlines for final responses. We very much hope all the leaders will participate."

Other political leaders indicated they were ready and willing to take part in the debates.

Mr Miliband said the Prime Minister would reveal himself to be a "weak leader" if he refused to take part.

"It is make your mind up time for David Cameron," he said.

"He can keep running from these debates with me and show himself to be a weak leader running from his record.

"Or he can agree to the debates which the British people deserve and that our democracy needs."

Mr Clegg called on the Prime Minister to join the debates in a message on Twitter: "Come on, David Cameron, you haven't got your own way so accept it and take part."

His campaign chief, former Lib Dem leader Lord Ashdown, repeated the offer of Mr Clegg taking the Prime Minister's place to defend the Government's record in the head-to-head debate with Mr Miliband - an idea that has already been dismissed by Labour.

Lord Ashdown told the BBC: "If Mr Cameron will not defend the Government's record then Mr Clegg is very willing to defend our role in that."

Ukip leader Nigel Farage said he would "accept the challenge" of appearing in the debates, even though he preferred the broadcasters' earlier proposal for a four-way format featuring himself, Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg.

He said: "I'm pleased that the broadcasters have stood firm at last but it would have been far better had they stuck with their original proposal which included fewer parties. But nonetheless we accept the challenge."

Scottish National Party Leader Nicola Sturgeon said: "I will debate David Cameron any time, anywhere, and on any number of occasions - but a Tory Prime Minister simply cannot be allowed to dictate terms to everyone else.

"David Cameron is clearly running scared of having to answer for his Government's record of failure and incompetence - and this arrogance in trying to lay down the law has become his comeuppance."

Green leader Natalie Bennett said Mr Cameron's refusal to take part in the debates as planned was further damaging the reputation of politics.

"The fact is Mr Cameron, with his stance, is really doing further damage to trust in British politics," she told the BBC.

In the joint letter to Mr Oliver, the broadcasters made clear that they would keep the option open for Mr Cameron to perform a last minute U-turn and agree to take part.

But they indicated the debates would go ahead without him: "We very much hope that all invited leaders will participate in the broadcast debates. However, in the end all we can do - as impartial public service broadcasters - is to provide a fair forum for debates to take place. It will always remain the decision of individual leaders whether or not to take part."

They added: "Our invitations will remain open to all the invited leaders right up to broadcast. We'll set no deadlines for final responses. We very much hope all the leaders will participate."

The broadcasters welcomed the fact that the Prime Minister had agreed to take part in a televised debate, but they said they believed there needed to be two seven-way debates of a minimum of two hours each, within the election campaign, to allowing time to "properly represent the views of all parties, covering a broad range of subjects" .

In a statement they said: "The broadcasters also believe that a head-to-head debate between the two individuals who could become prime minister - David Cameron and Ed Miliband - is important - something the Prime Minister has publicly supported."

Following stormy exchanges on the debates at Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons on Wednesday, Sky News and Channel 4 said they were ready to move the two-header debate to another date if Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband could agree on a preferred day. The new statement made clear that this offer remains on the table.

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