Leaders’ debates are themselves tricky poltiics

I’m not at all surprised that the SNP are threatening a legal challenge to the historic decision to have three-way leaders’ debates in the UK general election. In 1995, like most London-based BBC editors I was taken aback when, after an injunction the BBC pulled a Panorama interview with the PM John Major a few days before Scottish local elections. The contexts seemed so different that we didn’t suspect a clash but the ruling went against us. Nick Robinson, then the programme deputy editor, relives the moment. The ground will be better prepared this time. Being able to stick my neck out further than Nick, I expect the SNP to back off or lose, after getting their whack of publicity. Scotland now has a full political establishment. Separate debates will follow in the three devolved capitals. Perfect symmetry is impossible. Leaders’ debates in a non-presidential, parliamentary system unlike the US or France is a minefield. But surely the only valid criteria for taking part in the main shows are (a) whether a party is fielding enough candidates to form a government – and crucially – (b) recent history shows it has at least a remote chance of doing so. This latter point is loathed by the minor parties but it is a guard against reverse discrimination of the major parties and prevents broadcasting bedlam. I’ll hold off a final verdict on the prospects of leader’s debates themselves until I hear the format. Tim Luckhurst a former BBC Today programme duty editor and briefly editor of the Scotsman thinks a straight confrontation between Brown and Cameron – i.e no Clegg – would be much better , a contest between the two potential Prime Ministers. He’s right of course. But the problem is, how to devise another forum that doesn’t seriously disadvantage the Lib Dems in what is still a parliamentary democracy where we don’t directly elect the PM. Will they be “ debates” worthy of the name or resemble the American nodding donkeys, where the greatest highlight was nearly 30 years ago, when Reagan punctured the over-earnest Carter with a sorrowful nod, a little laugh and: “ there you go again”. The big thing to look for is whether the leaders will be able to interrupt and put points to each other directly. Better also to leave the public out of it at least for putting questions. Unlike Question Time the questioners would have to be rigidly balanced, pre-selected and robbed of all spontaneity.

  • In Canada, the four main party leaders including the separatist Bloc Quebecois are represented. (The Greens, who have no seats, got in last time after a campaign but it was of no help to them or the public). There are usually three debates I think, two English one French and woe betide the federalist leaders if they can’t hold their own in both.

    The funny thing is that Gilles Duceppe, the current Bloc leader, comes across so favourably in leaders debates that he has a high approval rating among non-Quebecers after these debates – not in a “sure you can piss off and try and leave us with your debts but still use Canadian money and passports” sort of way but in a “why couldn’t this guy be a federalist” sort of way.

  • One other thing – in multi-leader debates it usually involves 2 or more ganging up on the other one. That rarely comes off well and ends up galvanising the leader (usually the PM) and especially his partisans.

  • Driftwood

    Be interesting to see David Cameron performing against Robinson, Adams and either Ritchie or McDonnell in the Belfast debate.

  • Only Asking

    They have a point about Nick Clegg, he is unlikely to be the next pm.