Cameron says he wants a debate but Labour leader says PM should ‘stop ducking and weaving and should name the date’
David Cameron has defended his decision not to face Ed Miliband in a head-to-head televised party leader debate ahead of the general election, after being accused of running scared.
Cameron insisted that he wanted there to be a debate and that he was trying to “unblock the logjam” created by the broadcasters. He argued that if the debate was held once election campaigning had formally started after the dissolution of parliament on 30 March, it would distract from the important issues.
The Labour leader renewed his call to Cameron to face him in the one-on-one debate proposed by broadcasters on 30 April, saying that the prime minister was “cowering from the public”.
“The British people deserve this debate”, he said. “I’ll debate him any time, any place, anywhere. He should stop ducking and weaving and he should name the date.”
On Wednesday, Downing Street made what it called a final offer to broadcasters that the prime minister would take part in just one debate featuring seven party leaders before the formal campaign begins next month. Hours after Miliband challenged Cameron to meet him “any time, any place, anywhere”, Downing Street ruled out a one-on-one debate after accusing the broadcasters of allowing the negotiations to descend into chaos.
The intervention by the prime minister’s director of communications, Craig Oliver, prompted an angry backlash from the other political parties. Douglas Alexander, the chair of Labour’s election campaign, accused No 10 of an “outrageous” attempt to bully the broadcasters into dropping their proposal for a debate between Cameron and Miliband.
Speaking on his weekly radio phone-in show on LBC on Thursday morning, Nick Clegg said he couldn’t get over the “lofty pomposity of the Conservatives”. He said: “It’s as if they think they’re ordering a drink in the drawing room of Downton Abbey, telling everybody else what they should do. It’s not for one party to grandly tell everybody else what’s going to happen.”
He offered to stand in for the prime minister in a head-to-head with Miliband: “If David Cameron is too busy and too important to defend he record of this government, then I offer myself.”
The former Liberal Democrat leader and chair of the party’s election campaign, Paddy Ashdown, accused Cameron of being “frit” and pointed out that the debate proposed by Downing Street would be held before the Conservative party had published its election manifesto.
Alastair Campbell, former director of communications for Tony Blair, called the development “democratically wrong and morally cowardly”. He said the prime minister was “wriggling and weaselling” out of debates and he thought Miliband would probably persevere and take part in debates without Cameron. “Everybody knows that Craig Oliver has a brief to make sure these debates do not happen,” Campbell told the BBC’s Today programme.
He admitted that he had advised Blair not to take part in debates prior to the 1997 general election. “I was worried that the focus of the campaign would all be about these debates, but they’ve now happened and that was 20 years ago. And what’s more they happened because David Cameron, no less, said back in 2010 they were fundamental to the democratic process.” Campbell added: “If you go around saying that Ed Miliband is the most terrible, weak, useless leader that we’ve ever had, why in that case won’t he debate against him?”
A Ukip spokesman said Cameron was “acting chicken” and leader Nigel Farage, speaking on ITV’s Loose Women said: “He’s sabotaged the whole thing. He’s now saying he’ll do one debate, but he’ll do it before the proper campaign starts so it’s not going to be a proper debate and Ofcom, the regulator, said there were four major parties in British politics – Lib, Lab, Con and us – and on that same day he said ‘well, surely the Greens have to be involved’. And now there’s going to be actually, a debate – if it happens at all – with more people than we’ve got sitting on this panel
now. How is it going to work?”
The Green party said Cameron’s “swerve” would further damage trust in the political system. “Not only is Cameron’s announcement cowardly but it also shows his contempt for the electorate,” the party said, adding that Natalie Bennett was very much looking forward to the debates.
The Scottish National party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, accused the prime minister of running scared. “This arrogance in trying to lay down the law is all about getting out of debates, not taking part,” she said.
The row erupted on Wednesday after Oliver sent an email to the chair of the broadcasters’ leaders’ debate committee, Sue Inglish, to say he was making a final offer, by which Cameron take part in one 90-minute debate between the seven party leaders. The debate would have to take place before the dissolution of parliament, in the week beginning 23 March.
Oliver wrote: “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.”
The broadcasters issued a neutral statement in which they suggested they were still committed to holding more than one debate. In a joint statement, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News said the three debates between the three main party leaders in 2010 had been watched by 22 million people and had engaged voters. “The broadcasters have set out their proposals and continue to talk to all the relevant parties on an equitable basis. We will respond to the Conservatives’ proposal in due course.”
The move by No 10 shows that Cameron is determined to achieve one of two goals: kill the debates altogether or ensure that they turn into what one senior Tory has described as a “democratic bore-athon”, that would dilute the impact of Nigel Farage.
Oliver said the debate should include Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Sturgeon, Bennett and the Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood. Nigel Dodds, the Democratic Unionist Party leader, should be allowed to make the case for why he should attend, said Oliver.