PLANS for televised election debates descended into chaos last night after David Cameron declared he had struck a deal to appear in a single face-off.
The Prime Minister said the broadcasters had made him a “formal offer” that would see one debate held featuring seven party leaders on 2 April, but two others – including a head-to-head with Ed Miliband – dropped.
The announcement appeared to catch other political parties and the broadcasters by surprise. In a joint statement released hours later, the BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4 welcomed Mr Cameron’s agreement to a “first” debate – but said talks were still ongoing about formats for other election programmes.
Labour made clear it was still working on the basis that three encounters were planned, with Ed Miliband accusing the Tory leader of “going to any length to avoid a head-to-head debate”.
However, the Liberal Democrats hailed the “latest proposals” from the broadcasters – which would apparently see the main party leaders interviewed separately on programmes alongside the single seven-way debate – as progress towards a “sensible solution”.
The broadcasters had previously mooted three debates, with the first two on 2 and 16 April featuring Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband, Liberal Democrat leader Mr Clegg, Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, Ukip’s Nigel Farage, Green leader Natalie Bennett and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, followed by the head-to-head encounter on 30 April between the two men vying to be prime minister.
The broadcasters had threatened to “empty chair” the Prime Minister in any debate he failed to attend.
It is understood that a small group of TV executives have been in talks with the Conservatives since Mr Cameron insisted he would not back down on his “final offer” of a single debate to take place before the election campaign begins on 30 March, but it remains unclear whether other parties were involved.
Tory sources said the package of programmes agreed by Mr Cameron includes an interview by Jeremy Paxman featuring questions from a studio audience, with Mr Miliband attending a similar event. Then, on 2 April, there would be a seven-way televised debate, including Mr Cameron and other party leaders. A further “challengers debate” would feature the leaders of the smaller parties.
On 30 April, a week before polling day, Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Nick Clegg would take part in a rotating question time event, following one another into a television studio but not going head-to-head.
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