Adam Boulton: Don’t let our leaders duck TV election debates if they want to win our votes

Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Gordon Brown took part in leaders' debates in 2010 on Sky News, ITV and the BBC.
Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Gordon Brown took part in leaders' debates in 2010 on Sky News, ITV and the BBC.
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“OH no, Not another one!” Brace yourself Brenda from Bristol.

As the conference season progresses, it’s clear that all the parties think there is a real chance that the Brexit mess could result in another early General Election.

Amber Rudd, left, deputised for Theresa May in a seven-way leaders' debate in the 2017 election which, it is believed, damaged the Prime Minister's standing.

Amber Rudd, left, deputised for Theresa May in a seven-way leaders' debate in the 2017 election which, it is believed, damaged the Prime Minister's standing.

Even if it doesn’t, and this Parliament goes to full term and a vote on May 5, 2022, British voters will be deprived of something which is enjoyed by electorates in just about every other proper democracy in the world and quite few dodgy authoritarian nations as well.

As things stand there will be no leaders’ debates in the UK. No chance to compare our potential Prime Ministers face-to-face on live TV during the election campaign.

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That’s why Sky News has launched the #MakeDebatesHappen campaign and is asking everyone to sign the Parliamentary petition calling for the establishment of an independent, standing, Leaders’ Debate Commission to organise debates between party leaders at election times.

Adam Boulton.

Adam Boulton.

We believe that the responsibility for staging debates as a public service should be taken out of the hands of both politicians and broadcasters.

Our petty rivalries and sordid calculations have stopped leaders’ debates becoming a regular feature of British elections.

We know debates do their job from the only year they took place. In 2010 Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg found the courage to take each other on in three debates in Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham.

It was the first time there had been over four hours of live debate on policy on prime-time television.

Audiences of between five and 10 million set records for current affairs TV. Academic research found that voters and especially young voters considered that they were much better informed. Voter turnout went up that year.

The more of us who feel engaged in our political process the healthier our society will be.

No other type of election programming can match the excitement and impact of live competition. From sporting cup finals to Strictly Come Dancing, no other medium can attract the attention of so many millions of people or generate so much raw material for discussion and analysis in print and online.

Party leaders who duck debates are treating the voting public with contempt, and are in dereliction of their duty to modern day democracy.

They are mistaken to think they have anything to gain by not taking part.

Smarting after losing the Conservative majority in 2017, Theresa May is reported to believe it was an error to send the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd as her substitute to debate Jeremy Corbyn.

What are the objections?

Debates are too presidential? Do you honestly believe that the policies adopted by the Government and Opposition are not materially shaped by whoever happens to be party leader? I thought not.

What about the other parties? Well, if there’s an election now, who is going to be Prime Minister? Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn, it’s not difficult. Based on current standing in Parliament, seats contested and opinion polls, I don’t think that Nicola Sturgeon or Sir Vince Cable would qualify right now.

But I don’t think that it should be up to me or David Dimbleby or Robert Peston. An independent commission should take the decisions about leaders’ debates and then tell the parties and the broadcasters how it’s going to be.

In 2010 leaders’ debates inspired an upsurge of other debates around the country. Broadcasters should also be required to compensate the other parties in their election coverage.

What about the claim that PMQs does the job? Even discounting the peculiarities of Parliamentary procedure and the Speaker’s whim, only very few political obsessives see all of PMQs which happens sometimes at Wednesday lunchtimes, and not at all during the six weeks of an election campaign when most people are deciding their votes.

Chairing a leaders’ debate in 2010 was the proudest moment of my career as a journalist, even though I agree with Fox News anchor Mike Wallace, who moderated the third Trump-Clinton clash in 2016, that the whole point is “it’s not about you”. Properly organised debates clear the egos of TV journalists out to the way and give the electorate a clear view of the choices before them.

The best way to do that is to establish a commission and the best time to do it is now, away from the heat of an election campaign. That way debate about debates can’t possibly “suck the oxygen out of the campaign” as David Cameron lamely alleged when ducking out in 2015.

I thank The Yorkshire Post for its support for leaders’ debates and urge its readers to sign the Parliamentary petition to bring them about. It already has more than 7,000 signatures can be found on this link: Make TV election debates happen – sign the petition here

Adam Boulton is presenter of 
All Out Politics on Sky News.