Nigel Farage hesitated before taking up Nick Clegg’s challenge to a minor election debate because he wanted to get into the major one – it it takes place at all. The last election saw three television debates about many issues, not just Europe. And it featured Gordon Brown and David Cameron, not just Clegg. This is the big time show that Farage wants to crash in 2015. He knows that his acceptance of Clegg’s smaller-time, smaller-scale proposal makes his chance of doing so even more remote.
The same logic applies to Clegg himself. By taking on a minor leader whose party holds no Commons seats, he has made it less likely that he will get a second scrap with the major ones. Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister believes that such a repeat can only harm him, since it would bring back memories of his stage-crashing performances of 2010 – and the tuition fees debacle that followed. Or it may be that he thinks that neither Cameron nor Miliband would let him in this time.
Be all this as it may, Clegg’s gambit was bound to raise bigger questions about the next election and TV debates. What’s in Cameron’s best interest? More importantly, what’s in the country’s – and should they happen at all? The last question is the easiest to answer. There is a high constitutional argument which holds that British elections aren’t presidential contests and that TV debates, therefore, shouldn’t take place.
However, this is beside the low popular reality – namely, that the next election will partly be about leadership, and that many voters will therefore want to view the potential leaders, and see how they square off against each other. (Over nine million people watched the first of the debates in 2010.) The election won’t be invalidated if such debate doesn’t take place this time round. But it would be best for it to do so. Voters who disagree can always change channel – or plump for the off switch.
Obviously, the two potential Prime Ministers, Cameron and Miliband, should feature. The case for Clegg doing so is that he leads the third largest party, which may once again hold the balance of power after 2015. But if that last consideration is an important one, why should the other minor party leaders in the Commons be excluded – Angus Robertson, Elfyn Llwyd? Indeed, why not go a step further, and let Farage in after all, even though UKIP lacks a single MP?
Labour’s position on the debates is confused. The Daily Mail’s story today cites the party demanding a Cameron-Miliband head-to-head in one breath, and conceding a potential place for Clegg in the next. The Conservative position is obscure. Downing Street’s official view is that it is no rush to agree a settlement – that the Prime Minister is “busy running the country”, and unwilling to focus on the matter yet. This masks two schools of thought within Camp Cameron.
The first is that since Miliband would begin any debate with rock-bottom expectations, he could only rise above them – and that the whole project should thus be quietly scuppered. The second is that Cameron must push for the poll lead that will gain him a majority, that winning it is unlikely – and that he must therefore gamble on trouncing Miliband. To this way of thinking, TV debate between the two leaders isn’t just desirable, but essential.
What should happen is as clear as these positions are confused. First, the two potential Prime Ministers should go head-to-head – and, given the range of issues at stake, one encounter wouldn’t be enough. It would be best to aim for three. This would have the advantage, from the Tory point of view, of making the debates less vulnerable to a one-off shock. (And if Cameron can’t confirm over three debates that he’d be a better leader than Miliband, he doesn’t deserve to be on stage at all.)
Legal complexities will doubtless be cited in order to let Clegg have his place in the sun. If they prove decisive (and only if), then the other minor party leaders should come in, too. Tim Montgomerie warned presciently in 2010 both about Clegg’s presence and debate timing. If the TV confrontations take place during the campaign itself, they are bound to overshadow it, just as they did four years ago, and as he warned they would).
This might be a relief to many voters, but the parties should have the chance both to put their leaders up in front of the public and set out their policy stalls. This would point to the debates taking place earlier next year – in January or February, before the formal campaigns begin. So: let the two prospective Prime Ministers go head-to-head. Let them do so early. And let no-one in the election’s aftermath complain that they had no chance to see Cameron and Miliband put their case.