In the hot summer of 2009, over lunch in St James’s Park, the then director of communications for the Conservative Party, Andy Coulson, made a sensational pledge to a pair of Sky News journalists that may end up changing British politics forever: David Cameron, he said, would commit himself to a televised ‘leaders’ debate’, even if prime minister Gordon Brown refused to do so.
Sky News had been campaigning loudly for live TV debates between the party leaders during the following year’s general election campaign – with editor-in-chief John Ryley and political editor Adam Boulton making the case on air and in print. “We wanted the debates, were prepared to campaign for them and would share what we brought about,” writes Boulton in his book on the 2010 election, ‘Hung Together’.
By October 2009, a reluctant Brown had agreed in principle to take part in a series of televised leaders' debates – the first sitting premier to ever agree to such a proposal. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But will those TV debates now be consigned to the dustbin of British political history? Is there a risk they won’t be repeated, come April and May 2015?
Despite having been an ardent advocate of TV debates back in the days of opposition - in fact, he debated opponent David Davis on live television as part of his campaign for the Tory party leadership in 2005 – Cameron now seems to have cold feet.
He’s said he thinks the debates sucked "all the life” out of the 2010 election campaign; the Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps has even suggested that, come 2015, TV debates might not happen at all. The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson has written: "Be warned that when you hear the words 'TV debates' you may be recalling memories of Obama v Romney and not, as we should be, Britain's next prime ministerial debates."
What’s behind this apparent volte-face on the part of Tory high command? Is the telegenic and articulate Cameron worried about debating Ed Miliband – or, for that matter, cabinet colleague Nick Clegg? And how do broadcasters conduct ‘balanced’ TV debates in an era of coalition politics and the rise of Ukip?
The story of the 2010 debates is often reduced to the story of ‘Cleggmania’. As the first – and historic – televised debate approached, in April 2010, senior Conservative and Labour figures were aware that there would be a “Clegg factor” to consider; that the Lib Dem leader, ‘the third man’, would have an opportunity to shine. Brown’s top strategists in Downing Street would subsequently claim that they were “intensely relaxed” about Clegg’s inclusion in the three debates.
From Labour’s perspective, after thirteen years of Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown, David Cameron offered ‘change’. But by agreeing to the debates, the Conservative leader gave the public a chance to see that another option was available.
Many Conservative MPs blame Cameron and Coulson’s decision to sign up to the debates for the party’s failure to secure an overall parliamentary majority in an election that he should have won with ease. Before the votes had finished being counted on the night of 6 May 2010, Tory peer Lord Ashcroft – who had run the party’s marginal seats campaign – announced on the BBC: “The debates.. turned everything topsy-turvy and what were natural assumptions before those debates changed the whole of the playing field.” A hung parliament, he added, was “a consequence of those debates”.
Plenty of Labour figures agree with his analysis. As David Muir, Brown’s lead debate negotiator and then director of strategy, explained in an interview with the Huffington Post UK, the voters/viewers went “wobbly” on the Tory leader during and after the three televised debates.
“He wasn’t as good as he normally is,” Muir observes of Cameron in April and May 2010. “Clegg came through as a novelty and Brown was able to question Cameron. The role of the third party is the easiest position, you blame the Conservatives, you blame Labour and come through the middle.”
After the first debate, Clegg, who mastered the format by talking directly to the camera, saw his personal poll ratings skyrocket. ‘Cleggmania’ gripped the nation, with allies of the Lib Dem leader joking that he was more popular than Winston Churchill.
“We were intensely relaxed about that, any rise in sentiment for the Lib Dems was going to help us,” Muir says. “Nick Clegg became ‘change’, which took ‘change’ away from David Cameron.”
In spite of their subsequent denials, members of Cameron’s inner-circle appeared to ignore the threat posed to their man by the similar-looking, similar-sounding Lib Dem leader. Senior Tory backbencher David Davis, who lost out to Cameron in the 2005 leadership contest, told Cameron to be wary. “I did warn David that Nick Clegg was going to be more dangerous than he thought he was,” Davis has said.
Davis, who knows Clegg well, revealed in an interview with The Guardian that he told his leader: “You're going to attack Brown, he's going to attack Brown. Brown will attack you, he will attack you. Nobody is going to bother to attack him. And, anyway, he hasn't really got a history to defend.”
To their disappointment, the Lib Dems did not see their leader’s (brief) sky-high, post-debate poll ratings translate into extra seats in the Commons. “Although the public might have said in 2010, `We agree with Nick', it is not clear that this affected their voting intentions,” says political historian Vernon Bogdan, in an interview with HuffPost UK. “The LibDems gained just 1% in the vote and lost 5 seats.” The debates, Bogdanor argues, had “little influence” on voting.
Nonetheless, as academics Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley explain in their book 'The British General Election of 2010', what the TV debates did was to transform the little-known Clegg into a national figure and a credible candidate to be deputy prime minister in a coalition government. They mattered.
As a Clegg aide told the authors: “The Lib Dems were like “that mousey girl who goes to the prom in films, takes off her glasses, shakes her hair, and suddenly everyone realizes how beautiful she is”.
Although the prime minister’s supporters have insisted that his performance in the TV debates did not alter the outcome of the last general election, or cost the Tories their majority, the PM himself seems to have been rowing back from his earlier enthusiasm for such setpiece events. (Prior to the 2010 election, the Tory leader challenged his Labour counterpart to debate ‘anywhere, any how, any time” and said he had a “general view that you have to have TV debates”, report Boulton and co-author Joey Jones in ‘Hung Together’.)
Since late last year, senior Tories have been dropping rather big hints to the press that the PM and his advisers have cooled on the idea of repeating the televised debates of 2010 – or, at least, of repeating it in the same style, format and number.
In November, Tory chairman Grant Shapps suggested that his party leader might pull out of the debates altogether at the next general election.
“I had very mixed feelings about the leaders' debates last time round. It may or may not have made a difference," Shapps told the Times, adding: “I'm open minded. I don't know if it will happen. There will be a discussion.”
Then, in December, Cameron himself told a Westminster press gallery lunch that, while he was in favour of the debates in principle and had “enjoyed” doing them in 2010, he believed that they had sucked “all the life out of the campaign”.
This was a very different Cameron to the Tory leader who declared, after the first leaders’ debate in April 2010: “I think we will have them in every election in the future and I think that it is a really good thing for our democracy.” His December comments, noted one veteran Westminster-watcher, looked as if the PM was “trying to prepare the ground for wriggling out of TV debates if he decides that they aren't in his interests”.
In contrast to the Conservative leader, Ed Miliband has made it clear that he is keen to try his hand at the leaders’ debates for the first time.
A close ally of the Labour leader – who, it is worth noting, beat his brother David and three other candidates to secure the Labour crown only after a series of gruelling public hustings across the country, including a televised debate on BBC1’s Question Time in September 2010 – says Miliband sees the debates as a “good opportunity”: “He’ll be performing in front of the public, unfiltered by the [Westminster] lobby.”
"I think David Cameron's not sure whether he wants to do them,” Miliband said in his recent interview on the Marr programme, in a classic bit of public debate negotiation that could have been lifted from a US presidential campaign. "I'm relishing these television debates, I'm looking forward to them. I hope they happen. I think they give an insight to the public directly into what's on offer at the next election."
Regardless of whether or not the format changes, there will be a very different dynamic to the TV debates in 2015. The three debates of 2010 were a free-for-all but the (three?) debates of 2015 will be a coalition affair. Cameron and Clegg will be defending a joint record: if the coalition manages to turn the economy around and get growth up and unemployment down in the run-up to polling day, Cameron and Clegg will be able to gang up on Miliband. Of course, if we’re in the midst of a triple-dip recession, or if economic growth is, at best, stagnant, the Labour leader will be able to denounce the duo’s austerity measures and adopt, somewhat awkwardly given his own time in (the previous Labour) government, the mantle of change.
For Clegg, no longer the insurgent outsider, positioning is everything. He will want to be physically in the middle, allowing him to push his centrist, split-the-difference message: ‘Labour can't be trusted with money, the Tories can't be trusted with society.’ The debates are an opportunity for him to speak directly to the nation, and make amends for tuition fees and the rest.
Should Labour be worried about the prospect of Clegg joining in on Cameron’s attacks on Miliband? Is two against one unfair, when it comes to debating the coalition government’s record in office?
“It’s not necessarily a great record to be defending for a long time,” jokes one senior Labour strategist. “I don’t think it’ll be in Clegg’s interests to be talking about the [joint] record. I think he’ll be pushing for differentiation.
However, the strategist tells HuffPost UK that Labour may object to any allocation of time which gives Cameron and Clegg twice as long as Miliband to discuss the 2010-2015 parliament. “Forward-looking can be a three-way split,” says the strategist, “but on the [government] record, there is a case for cutting Clegg’s time.” Nothing, he says, has so far been set in stone.
Broadcasters Bite Back
Having complained the debates took “all the life” out of the 2010 election campaign, the prime minister and his allies are keen to change the dates of the debates and have privately discussed the option of having one or two of the debates held prior to the official start of an election campaign and also the possibility of lengthening the gap between the final, televised clash and polling day.
The bad news for the Tory strategists at CCHQ is that it’s not the prime minister’s decision to make. And the broadcasters aren’t impressed. John Ryley, the head of Sky News, has rejected the idea out of hand.
“Well, we believe the debates need to take place during the election campaign to be relevant to the voters,” Ryley tells HuffPost UK. “It would be bizarre to hold the debates while Parliament is sitting.”
However, he says, Sky is eager to shake up the format. “If the live debates are to engage the electorate they cannot be merely a re-run of what we had in 2010,” Ryley says, in a challenge to his counterparts at the BBC and ITV, as well as to the three main party leaders.
“The other broadcasters may want to stick to the status quo. We can only start adjusting the format, once we are all sitting down round the negotiating table.”
Ryley may have more support than he thinks. Alastair Stewart, the veteran ITN broadcaster, who hosted the first TV debate in 2010, for ITV, has been studying the televised US presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
“I thought the best Obama-Romney debate was the CNN Town Hall session,” he says. “Our leaders are more than up to that sort of format but whether their 'minders' would risk it is another question. They experience that sort of cut and thrust, on the streets, every day of the campaign. Under the right arrangements it could be powerful politics and powerful TV.”
He is less sure that all three leaders would be keen on such a free-flowing format, adding: “I am not, however, holding my breath.”
It’s not just the TV men who want to see the format change. Muir also suggests shaking up the format, along the lines of the American experience. He suggests one Town Hall debate, one traditional debate involving podiums and a final debate with the three leaders sat around a table.
Whether stood next to each other, sat down opposite each other, or wandering around a stage tripping over each other, it would be extraordinary for the debates not to happen. “Given that a precedent has now been set, there must be a strong case for further debates,” says Bogdanor. Cameron’s predecessor, and former mentor, Michael Howard agrees, telling the BBC in December that “there should be televised political debates. It would be difficult to row back from the fact we have now had televised debates.”
Ryley reminds Cameron of his threat to “empty chair” Gordon Brown in 2010 if he refused to take party. Any attempt to get out of the debates would be “bad for democracy, bad for politics, and bad form,” the Sky News boss tells HuffPost UK. “The live debates will take place in the run up to the next General election in May 2015 and we at Sky are already making plans” he reveals. “It's heartening that twice in the past few days David Cameron has confirmed his commitment to the debates despite the advice of some senior Tories.”
The genie is out of the bottle and it will be nigh on impossible for CCHQ spinners to push it back in. The TV-obsessed British public will expect live, televised debates. The broadcasters have made clear that they will not back down on this issue. (The ratings, incidentally, weren’t so bad last time round, with the first debate, on ITV1, pulling in around 10m viewers – or treble the audience of BBC1’s weekly Question Time programme.)
ITN’s Stewart observes that they functioned well as TV shows and, as the execution of a complex and precisely-negotiated formula, they pretty well held to what had been agreed in advance by the various parties. “Oddly, the essential lesson for me was that more than 10m watched ITV's, the first; almost ten million were still there when David Dimbleby did his, three weeks later.”
The lesson? “The British electorate liked it and, on that basis, I think would like it again.”
Stewart is critical of the “loose-cannon” talk of recent weeks. “The chairman of the Conservative Party, Grant Shapps, saying they neutered the campaign, sucked the oxygen out of it; then the PM, himself, told BBC Radio 4 he was 'for them' and 'up for' doing it again,” he notes.
“Caveats there were, aplenty, which could be a series of get-out clauses. Labour and Lib Dem leaders seem to be up for it but, again, some of their lieutenants have been laying down a little 'conditionality'.
Stewart is convinced the risk of being seen as cowardly will encourage the leaders to take part. “I think the British electorate would find it odd, at best, if any of them said no. At worse they might be accused of being 'frit' - how Margaret Thatcher used to say 'frightened'.”
One possibility that would certainly scare the hell out of Cameron, despite the PM’s recent attempt to ‘do a Thatcher’ and handbag Brussels with his ‘in-out’ EU referendum pledge, would be the prospect of having Nigel Farage on the stage.
Ukip has been agitating for its leader to be allowed into the debates. A party spokesperson insists it is “not stupid” enough to believe that Farage would be invited to appear alongside Cameron, Clegg and Miliband if the election were held tomorrow. But, says the spokesperson, Ukip hopes a strong, potentially first place, finish in the 2014 European elections will mean the argument for including the party’s leader “speaks for itself”.
Vernon Bogdanor agrees. Whether or not Farage gets to elbow his way into the debates depends on two issues, he tells HuffPost UK. “First, how UKIP performs in the 2014 euro-elections – if the party comes first or a strong second, that gives Farage a good case. Second, is the party putting up sufficient candidates for it to be, in theory, capable of forming a government, or perhaps being a partner in a coalition government?”
Meanwhile, a recent ComRes poll found more than than half of voters believe the Ukip leader should be allowed to take on the three main party leaders in the live TV clashes at the next election.
After his experience of ‘Cleggmania’ in 2010, however, Cameron is unlikely to agree to allowing another ‘change’ candidate onto the stage, especially one that is trying to squeeze Tory votes from the eurosceptic right.
“Obviously we have to decide on this nearer the time, but the TV debates should be about, you know, the parties that are going to form the government, in my view,” he has said.
The Conservative leader seems to have the backing of his two main rivals. Clegg, when asked by journalists in Westminster earlier this month if he would welcome Farage to a neighbouring podium, replied: “"I think the format we had before was a good one". And Miliband, pressed on Ukip’s potential inclusion on the Andrew Marr programme on 13 January, would only say: “I think the three major parties is the way it’s normally been done.” A source close to the Labour leader tells HuffPost UK: “We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel.”
The trio’s position on Ukip, of course, also shuts down any talk of including other smaller parties in the TV debates - including a post-independence referendum SNP.
Last year Downing Street performed one of the fastest U-turns in history after it suggested Cameron would be willing to debate SNP leader – and Scottish first minister - Alex Salmond ahead of the independence poll – perhaps, again, recalling his 2010 run-in with Clegg and Cleggmania.
Will Duckworth, the deputy leader of the Greens, says his party, naturally, “would love to take part” and “let the people decide rather than letting media moguls choose their favourites”.
But, realistically, there’s not a hope in hell of seeing Caroline Lucas on the platform, being quizzed by Boulton and co. “It’s probably unlikely to happen,” Duckworth tells HuffPost UK, adding: “It would be nice to have a separate debate amongst the smaller parties.”
Who would this include? The SNP and Plaid Cymru? “Yes,” he says, before adding with a laugh: “Probably the Lib Dems too.”
Duckworth points out that it would be bad for parliamentary democracy to have the TV debates be reduced to just two people – Dave and Ed. And he argues that if Ukip are allowed to join the TV debates then the Greens must be as well, given the latter has a sitting MP, whereas the former doesn’t.
“They do very well in European elections with MEPs,” Duckworth admits. “But that’s partly because of their message and party because of they do appeal to a sort of fairly extreme politically naive view point, the reactionary viewpoint. “The majority of people when they listen to their policies and hear them speak in detail realize these people are not fit for government.”
The truth is that the decision on whether or not to include Farage, or the leader of any other smaller party, in the debates would not be in the hands only of the three main party leaders. Would the broadcasters be wiling to break with their format and allow the colourful and outspoken Ukip leader to have a role, however minor? Sky News boss John Ryley set out to disrupt the status quo back in 2009; to transform the broadcast media’s coverage of general election campaigns in the UK. What does he make of the recent calls to have Ukip’s Farage appear on the platform, come 2015?
“Sky, ITN and the BBC, will need to have a chat,” he says.