DAVID Cameron has denied putting obstacles in the way of televised leaders’ debates ahead of the general election, after Labour accused him of “running scared” of a head-to-head showdown with Ed Miliband.
Mr Miliband said that the Prime Minister was “cowering from the public”, after Downing Street rejected broadcasters’ proposals for three TV debates during the election campaign and made a “final offer” of a single 90-minute show featuring at least seven party leaders to take place before the official start of the campaign on March 30.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said that he was willing to take the PM’s place in the one-on-one debate with Mr Miliband, if Mr Cameron refused to turn up for the clash, scheduled to be shown on Sky News and Channel 4 on April 30 - exactly a week before the May 7 election. But Labour dismissed the suggestion as “ridiculous”, suggesting that the Deputy Prime Minister should instead debate with their deputy leader Harriet Harman.
If Mr Cameron did not turn up, Mr Miliband was ready to subject himself to a solo grilling by presenter Jeremy Paxman and a studio audience, said Labour campaign chair Lucy Powell.
Ukip’s Nigel Farage said Mr Cameron was trying to “sabotage” the debates, while Mr Clegg accused the PM of “lofty pomposity” in trying to dictate their format. The Electoral Reform Society said it would be a “national embarrassment” if the debates did not go ahead.
In a process of negotiations stretching over months, Mr Cameron has previously raised objections to broadcasters’ proposals, first on the grounds that they excluded the Greens, and then that the Democratic Unionist Party had been left out. Labour have accused the Tories of working behind the scenes to scupper the live broadcasts - first tried in a UK general election in 2010.
Speaking during a visit to Staffordshire, the Prime Minister insisted he had been “completely consistent” on the debates, saying: “I haven’t put hurdles in the way, the broadcasters came up with a series of proposals that other people realised were flawed.
“I am unblocking the log jam and saying let’s have this seven-cornered debate and get on with it before the campaign. Then we can actually do what needs to be done, which is to get round the country during the election campaign.”
He rejected claims that staging the debates before party manifestos are published would limit the opportunity to scrutinise their plans, insisting: “Everyone knows what the Conservative proposals are and the Labour proposals are, and the other parties can speak for themselves.”
Mr Miliband said he was ready to debate the Prime Minister “any time, any place, anywhere”.
“It is now clear that David Cameron is ducking the debate with me. He is cowering from the public,” said Mr Miliband.
“The British people deserve this debate. I’ll debate him any time, any place, anywhere. He should stop ducking and weaving and name the date.”
The Labour leader’s comment echoed Mr Cameron’s own 2007 challenge to Gordon Brown to face him in a TV debate, when he said: “Any time, anywhere. I will even pay for the taxi to take him (Gordon Brown) to the studio. In fact, I’ll even drive the cab.”
Meanwhile, Mr Clegg said he would happily take his coalition partner’s place and spare the nation from an “Ed Miliband monologue”.
Speaking during a visit to Cornwall, the Liberal Democrat leader said: “I am bemused by the lofty pomposity of the Conservatives that they say they will deign to participate in one debate.
“They’re behaving as if they’re ordering a drink in the drawing room of Downton Abbey. It’s not for the Conservatives to start telling people how these debates are going to happen, they belong to the British people.
“If David Cameron is too important or too busy to bother to actually defend the record of this government in a debate with Ed Miliband then, yeah, I’ll offer up myself to do it instead.”
Mr Cameron’s latest terms for taking part have been set out in a letter from his director of communications, Craig Oliver, to Sue Inglish, chairwoman of the broadcasters’ leaders’ debates committee.In a joint statement, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky said they would respond to the Conservatives’ proposal in due course.
As well as the April 30 two-leader clash, the broadcasters have proposed seven-way debates also involving Mr Clegg and the leaders of Ukip, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party on ITV on April 2 and BBC on April 16.
Asked if he thought Mr Cameron was running scared, Mr Farage said: “Yes, he is. He has sabotaged the whole thing.
“He has now said he will do one debate, but he will do it before the proper campaign starts, so it’s not going to be a proper debate.”
The Ukip leader told ITV’s Loose Women: “I suspect, had it been a four-headed debate, there are one or two conversations I wanted to have with the Prime Minister that I don’t think he would have been able to answer. I suspect that’s why they have sabotaged it.”
A spokesman for the Greens said: “Not only is Cameron’s announcement cowardly but it also shows his contempt for the electorate. People want to see a set of debates between all major party leaders, yet the Prime Minister is clearly scared of scrutiny.”
Electoral Reform Society chief executive Katie Ghose said: “This unseemly squabble over TV debates has to end now.
“Compared to other advanced democracies around the world, Britain has been extremely late to the party when it comes to TV debates. It would be a national embarrassment if we end up being the first to leave that party as well.
“No TV debates in 2015 would be a backward step in terms of our democratic development.”