David Cameron yesterday described UKIP as a “minor party”, and justified a refusal to participate in the planned election debates on the ground that the scheme is unfair to the Greens, who he also described as a “minor party”. But OFCOM has said that it now considers UKIP a “major party”. Is Cameron’s spurning of the debates therefore untenable?
The answer lies in the broadcasters’ original proposals. They proposed three debates. The first would include the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. The second would feature the first three parties, but not Nigel Farage’s. And the final one would see Cameron and Ed Miliband go head to head.
Few were happy. Most senior Conservatives don’t really want debates at all; they are worried that Miliband can only over-perform expectations. The Liberal Democrats protested that excluding them from the last debate was unfair. The Greens complained at their exclusion. The SNP and Plaid Cymru were up in arms. George Galloway and Respect chipped in. The only men content were Miliband and Farage.
OFCOM’s new ruling shifts this balance – though, among the main parties, the Liberal Democrats will presumably still be dissatisfied. And Cameron will doubtless be scorned for being chicken. But the most pertinent question today isn’t whether he is or isn’t. It isn’t even whether the debates should take place at all. It’s whether the format that the broadcasters proposed was right in the first place.
It wasn’t – and isn’t. Why should only major parties be included? If they should be, why not have more than one debate with those that OFCOM now believes should qualify? Why should UKIP be excluded from the two of the three debates? Why should the Liberal Democrats be barred from the final one? Or why shouldn’t the only two men who may be Prime Minister next summer go head to head alone?
We believe that they should – three times, given the range of issues at stake in the coming election. And that there should be another debate for all comers UK-wide whose parties have won seats in the Commons: Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Farage, Bennett and, yes, Galloway. Whatever you think of this plan, it at least has the merit of not designating four main parties – and then treating them differently.
The broadcasters’ plans looks like an open invitation to M’Learned Friends and HugeFeeQCs. But whether they are or aren’t, the truth is that the muddle-headedness of the broadcasters has let Cameron off the hook. If the proposals they had produced made any sense, he might have found sliding out of the debates a bit tricky. But they don’t. So he won’t.