David Cameron’s hopes of limiting the impact of the 2015 TV debates by staging them before the election campaign gets underway appear dead in the water, after the head of Sky News torpedoed the idea.
His remarks have been interpreted as a negotiating tactic to get the debates moved much earlier in the year in exchange for his signing up to take part.
However speaking to The Huffington Post UK, John Ryley, the head of Sky News, flatly rejected the idea.
"Well, we believe the debates need to take place during the election campaign to be relevant to the voters," he said. "It would be bizarre to hold the debates while Parliament is sitting."
Ryley reminded Cameron of his threat to "empty chair” Gordon Brown in 2010 if he refused to take part and said it would “bad for democracy, bad for politics, and bad form” if Cameron tried to duck the debates.
Ryley revealed Sky News was "already making plans" for the 2015 debates and was eager to shake up the format.
“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 did acknowledge that Cameron had made several statements of support for the debates, even if he was angling for changes around the edges.
"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," he said.
In December Cameron lamented that in 2010 "the press and all of us were interested in the runup to the debate, the debate and the post-debate analysis, not the rest of the campaign, which I really enjoy".
"I like campaigning, I like being out there, the public meetings, the awkward moments, the difficulties – it is an incredibly exciting time, trying to explain what you are about and what you are trying to do," he said.
Many Tories believe Cameron’s poor performance in the debates which took place in the four week period before polling day contributed to his failure to secure an overall majority.
The idea of changing the format of the debates has also been welcomed by Alastair Stewart, the veteran ITV journalist who hosted the first debate in 2010.
Stewart told HuffPost UK that Britain should look to the recent presidential debates in the United States for further inspiration including the Town Hall format where questioned are asked by an audience rather than a moderator.
“I thought the best Obama-Romney debate was the CNN Town Hall session,” he said.
“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.”
Stewart also issued a warning to Cameron, Miliband and Clegg not to try and wriggle out of taking part.
“There's been a lot of 'loose-cannon' talk of late - 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 said.
“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'.”
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