11:11 Thursday 5th March 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
PAUL STAINTON: We were promised, I think promised, or it was mooted, we were going to get two possibly even three TV debates. But now it seems we may get one or none at all. David Cameron says he’ll only do one debate. So is the Prime Minister chicken? .. That’s what David Cameron’s political rivals are saying now he’s refused to take part in the head-to-heads with Labour Leader Ed Miliband. The Tories say he will now only do one TV election debate, and it has to include at least seven party leaders, and it has to happen before the start of the official election campaign. Our political reporter is Robin Chrystal. Morning Robin. .. So is he running chicken here? Why would he?
ROBIN CHRYSTAL: Well his answer is no I’m not running chicken at all. I’m prepared to have a debate. No sitting Prime Minister has done that before. He says the broadcasters have been mucking him about. They haven’t consulted him about what they wanted to do. If they’d consulted him first he would have said we need to have some of the other parties involved. He wanted the Greens in particular. Then he said the broadcasters came forward with a formula and didn’t consult him again. So his answer is look, this is my final offer, I will have one ninety minute debate but it must include all the parties including the Labour Party obviously, himself, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. But just listen to this: David Cameron back in 2010, when he was actually Leader of the Opposition and Gordon Brown and Labour were Prime Minister.
DAVID CAMERON: There are Parliamentary systems that do have television debates. We’ve seen them in Italy, in Australia, in Poland. And I have to ask him. The Prime Minister has no, in principle objection. When he was Shadow Chancellor he did a television debate against my Right Hon Friend the then Chancellor of the Exchequer. So I have to ask him, what on earth is he frightened of?
ROBIN CHRYSTAL: What on earth is he frightened of. I think that tells you what is actually going on here. Basically it’s a pretty straightforward calculation. I am the Prime Minister. This other guy is Leader of the Opposition. I am trying to portray him as somebody who can’t run a small factory let alone the country. If I put him on-screen next to me, I immediately give him equal billing, and the only way he can go is up. So frankly I don’t want to play that game.
PAUL STAINTON: That’s the school of thought for some people isn’t it, that the incumbent always loses out in this. Gordon Brown was particularly awful wasn’t he in the TV debates. But Cameron is pretty good in the House of Commons against Ed Miliband. He’s pretty good against Nick Clegg, isn’t he. It would do him more good wouldn’t it I would have thought and it’s neck and neck at the moment between Labour and the Conservatives isn’t it?
ROBIN CHRYSTAL: Well it is neck-and-neck, but why take the risk? You see? It could, yes of course it could be that David Cameron comes out on top, but it could be he didn’t. He has lots to lose. He has something possibly to gain. But because it’s so close, I think the calculation from the Conservatives is actually look, we are making an offer. No sitting Prime Minister has done that before. Don’t forget Margaret Thatcher never did it. Tony Blair when he was coming in and wanting to be Prime Minister in ’97, he didn’t do ’96. He didn’t do it in 2001. So there is a precedent here for a Prime Minister not taking part in these debates.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. And does it really make a difference? Nick Clegg did ever so well didn’t he but he didn’t do that well in the election.
ROBIN CHRYSTAL: Well that is a difficult one to prove. It’s true to say that in the three debates last time, the number of people who actually watched was well into the 20 millions. So there’s a democracy point here, that people have a right to see the people who are going to rule over them debating with each other. But yes, it’s very difficult to prove that Nick Clegg many people said did well in the debate, did that mean he ended up as Deputy Prime Minister? Difficult to prove. But there’s one other thing here which is actually crucial, which is what are the broadcasters going to do? And that is the really interesting thing today. We know what Cameron’s offer is. Here it is. Take it or leave it.
PAUL STAINTON: Are we going to have empty chairs here? Are we going to have empty chairs?
ROBIN CHRYSTAL: Well that is the key question. And the honest answer to you is that I don’t know that. In a room not so far away from me I’ve no doubt there are frantic phone calls going on. It’s not just the BBC of course. There’s Sky and ITN. The format that they want is two lots involving all the political leaders and then a final head-to-head, hosted by Channel 4 and Sky, a week before the election, just with David Cameron and Ed Miliband. Now, as far as I can see there’s nothing to stop them in the rule book, in the law, saying fine, you don’t want to come on Prime Minister. That’s fine. We’ re going ahead.
PAUL STAINTON: We’ve invited you. That’s all we have to do.
ROBIN CHRYSTAL: Absolutely. It will be chaired by Jeremy Paxman, late of our parish. It would make very interesting viewing. We do not know whether they have the .. what’s the polite word .. the courage to actually go ahead and do it.
PAUL STAINTON: And famously before, Roy Hattersley has been empty chaired on Have I Got News for You wasn’t he? A lump of lard.
ROBIN CHRYSTAL: Yes but the difference here is, just to be serious for a moment, this is the General Election. This is the Prime Minister. This is the UK. You see what I mean? There’s a difference in terms. We’ve never been through this before. The broadcasters may be thinking, oh crikey, if we do this and Cameron gets in again, what’s he going to do to us? There’s all sorts of calculations going on here.
PAUL STAINTON: We want it though. We’re used to it now. We live in a television age.
ROBIN CHRYSTAL: I know. Well get on the phone .. you talk to high BBC people ..and say come on. Go for it.
PAUL STAINTON: I will do Robin. I’ll give him a ring. I’ve got his number in my mobile. Robin Chrystal our political reporter. So is David Cameron running scared of the TV debates? Or does he make good points that why should he give Ed Miliband the oxygen of his glory, to bask in his magnificence. So he’s offered. It’s going to be one TV debate and one only for ninety minutes. He’s only going to do it once.