PM: Debates should happen before election campaign

PRIME Minister David Cameron has demanded that the televised leaders’ debates should happen before the election as opponents claim he is still trying to find an excuse to avoid taking part.
David Cameron (left) speaking as Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg looks on in a TV debate staged in 2010 prior to the last general election. Picture: PADavid Cameron (left) speaking as Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg looks on in a TV debate staged in 2010 prior to the last general election. Picture: PA
David Cameron (left) speaking as Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg looks on in a TV debate staged in 2010 prior to the last general election. Picture: PA

In a new set of conditions, Mr Cameron has said he will only now take part in the proposed debates on BBC, ITV and Sky if the Northern Ireland parties are included and if they take part before the election campaign which is set to officially begin at the end of March.

Under the current proposals there will be two debates featuring Mr Cameron, Labour leader Ed Miliband, Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Ukip leader Nigel Farage, Green leader Natalie Benntt, SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood.

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A third debate would see Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband debating in a head-to-head contest.

Speaking on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show, Mr Cameron said that in 2010 the televised leaders’ debates “sucked the life out of the rest of the campaign.”

He said: “I think that they should happen before the campaign actually starts.”

He also questioned why the SNP and Plaid Cymru have been invited to take part when they are not national parties across the whole of the UK.

He said that if they were involved then the Democratic Unionist Party and the Social Democratic (DUP) and Labour Party (SDLP) should also be invited.

Sinn Fein has already ruled out taking part.

He also claimed that he had been right to insist on the Greens being involved in the debates.

He said: “If Ukip was involved I thought it was only fair that the Greens should be there too.

“Both are national parties and both having sitting MPs.

“Now everybody agrees the Greens should be in.”

Speaking earlier to LBC radio, Mr Cameron insisted he was “not fighting shy” of the debates, and joked that viewers might anyway prefer to be watching the BBC’s hit Tudor drama Wolf Hall.

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When presenter Nick Ferrari joked that, with the roster of leaders constantly expanding, there threatened to be more people in the debates than watching them, Mr Cameron replied: “I’m not in charge of the viewing figures.

“If people want to watch a television debate or if they prefer an episode of Wolf Hall, that’s up to them.”

Challenged over Mr Clegg’s claims that he was trying to avoid a debate by insisting on the inclusion of the Green Party, Mr Cameron said: “He didn’t want the Greens in the debate because the Greens might take some of his voters away. I understand that - it’s just his self-interest, and he’s dressing that up as some high principle.”

Mr Cameron insisted he wants the debates to happen and said he believes a deal can be struck with the parties and broadcasters.

“I do want to say ‘Yes’. I think we have made good progress, we should let these talks continue and conclude and then we can get on with the debates.”

However, Mr Miliband said that Mr Cameron was desperate to avoid debates, particularly a proposed head-to-head on BBC with him.

Mr Miliband said: “The Prime Minister is wriggling and wriggling to try to get out of these debates.

“If the broadcasters want to invite the Democratic Unionists or other Northern Irish parties, that is a matter for them.

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“Let’s make these debates happen, let’s have David Cameron actually sign up and say he is going to do these debates, not keep trying to avoid them.

“Frankly, it’s becoming a sort of charade from him. He clearly doesn’t want to do the debates and wants to find lots of different ways of trying to claim that he really does want to do them.”

Mr Miliband gave a commitment to take part in the debates, whatever format is chosen and whether or not Mr Cameron turns up.

He said: “I will give you a clear commitment. I am going to be at those debates, whether it’s an empty chair or David Cameron, I’m going to be at those debates.”