British Prime Minister David Cameron has denied putting obstacles in the way of televised leaders’ debates ahead of the general election, after Labour accused him of “running scared” of a head-to-head showdown with Ed Miliband.
Miliband said Cameron was “cowering from the public”, after Downing Street rejected broadcasters’ proposals for three TV debates during the election campaign and made a “final offer” of a single 90-minute show featuring at least seven party leaders to take place before the official start of the campaign on March 30.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said he was willing to take the prime minister’s place in the one-on-one debate with Miliband, if Cameron refused to turn up for the clash, scheduled to be shown on Sky News and Channel 4 on April 30 — exactly a week before the May 7 election. Labour dismissed the suggestion as “ridiculous”, suggesting that the deputy prime minister should instead debate with its deputy leader, Harriet Harman.
If Cameron did not turn up, Miliband was ready to subject himself to a solo grilling by Jeremy Paxman and a studio audience.
Ukip’s Nigel Farage said Cameron was trying to “sabotage” the debates, while Clegg accused the prime minister of “lofty pomposity” in trying to dictate their format. The Electoral Reform Society said it would be a “national embarrassment” if the debates did not go ahead.
In negotiations stretching over months, Cameron has previously raised objections to broadcasters’ proposals, first on the grounds that they excluded the Greens, and then that the Democratic Unionist Party had been left out. Labour has accused the Tories of working behind the scenes to scupper the live broadcasts — first tried in a UK general election in 2010.
Cameron insisted he had been “completely consistent” on the debates. “I haven’t put hurdles in the way, the broadcasters came up with a series of proposals that other people realised were flawed.
“I am unblocking the log jam and saying let’s have this seven-cornered debate and get on with it before the campaign. Then we can actually do what needs to be done, which is to get round the country during the election campaign.”
He rejected claims that staging the debates before party manifestos are published would limit the opportunity to scrutinise their plans. “Everyone knows what the Conservative proposals are and the Labour proposals are, and the other parties can speak for themselves.”
Miliband said he was ready to debate Cameron “any time, any place, anywhere”. “It is now clear that David Cameron is ducking the debate with me. He is cowering from the public.”
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