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Set your Sky Plus boxes to record: David Cameron is going to debate Nigel Farage ahead of the general election. Or at least that’s what will happen if Downing Street gets its way. Today’s Sunday Times reports (£) that Cameron & Co. have struck on a three-tier format for the television debates:

“Under the ‘2-3-5’ proposal drawn up by his aides, Cameron would hold one head-to-head debate with the Labour leader, Ed Miliband – as the other potential prime minister – a second, which would also include the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, and a third with Farage and the Green party leader, Natalie Bennett.”

Of course, all of this is still subject to negotiation, and those negotiations aren’t expected to start until after this year’s party conference – so, actually, you can stand down on the Sky Pus front. But I still thought I’d bash out a quick list of pros and cons with Downing Street’s current proposal, and with the debates in general and Farage’s inclusion in particular. Here goes:

Pros

  • Cameron would face Miliband three times, as he did Brown in 2010. This has the advantage of, as Paul put it in February, “making the debates less vulnerable to a one-off shock.”
  • Keeping Clegg out of one of the debates diminishes a problem from last time around: him overshadowing, in part or in whole, the two main party leaders. For one night only, Cameron would be able to focus his attacks upon Miliband.
  • Including Clegg in the other debates avoids all sorts of intra-Coalition nastiness – as well a possible legal challenge from the Lib Dems.
  • Taking on Farage would stave off the idea that Cameron is scared of the Betweeded One. Besides, there’s a lot that the UKIP leader can be exposed for, including – it shouldn’t be forgot – his party’s gossamer policies.
  • I’m generally in favour of removing political debate from the Commons and bringing it closer to the public. Cameron’s PM Direct meetings and Clegg’s radio Q&A are examples of this, but so are the TV debates.

Cons

  • This format would make the first debate – if the Cameron versus Miliband one comes first – even more important. Sure, if Cameron were to lose it, he could make up ground in the later debates. But that would be more difficult with other players on the turf.
  • Tim Montgomerie wrote of the last TV debate that “the decision to agree to equal status for the Liberal Democrats was the number one explanation for David Cameron’s failure to win a majority.” What, then, about giving equal(-ish) status to UKIP, a party that doesn’t even have an MP among its ranks?
  • Debating Farage could provoke EUrosis on Cameron’s own side. The Prime Minister could, with Miliband, Clegg and Lucas, sound fuzzily pro-European when set against the UKIP leader’s Better Off Out certainties.
  • In fact, if the last debate becomes Everyone versus Farage, it could help UKIP paint themselves as David to the political class’s Goliath, etc., etc.
  • A one-off debate could be more likely to push Tory voters towards UKIP than push disaffected UKIP voters towards the Tories. After all, for many UKIP voters, Cameron, Miliband and Clegg are the problem.

That’s by no means an exhaustive list, so please do suggest further bullet-points. As it stands, I’m pretty keen on these television debates, and think Downing Street’s proposed structure is quite solid. But we can’t really be sure of much in advance – with live teevee, as the professionals say, anything can happen.

72 comments for: Downing Street’s plan for the television debates – the pros and cons

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