Debates - on or off?

TV debates 2010
Image caption David Cameron is setting new conditions for taking part in the TV debates

Debates - on or off? David Cameron says he wants to take part in TV election debates and that he thinks a deal can be done but... he's also setting new conditions for taking part.

The PM told the BBC this morning that the Northern Ireland parties should be included now that the SNP and Plaid Cymru have been invited.

What's more, he repeated that he wants election debates to take place not during the election campaign itself, as the hullabaloo they generate distracts from the real issues.

So, what now? The broadcasters have traditionally treated Northern Irish politics as different to the rest of the UK because the big parties are not serious players there (Labour does not put up candidates as it is allied to the SDLP. The Tories do but they are not competitive).

Some would argue that if you invite the biggest party - the DUP - you should also invite the others - Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance and Ulster Unionists as well.

The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky will have to decide whether they blink again - as they did over the Greens taking part - in an effort to get Cameron on board or hold firm.

Debates about debates

So, what's David Cameron up to? He knows he may need the support of the DUP's nine MPs in a hung parliament so he's very happy to be seen fighting their corner. It's an investment in the future.

He knows that his call will delay negotiations again and strengthen his hand for what I think he wants to do next.

My hunch - and it really is a hunch and not something I've been told - is that he'll keep the debates about debates going as long as possible until, at the last possible minute, offering to take part in one debate with multiple leaders just before the campaign begins.

He'll claim that the media's obsession with the story has proved that he is right to warn that debates during the campaign would crowd out the real issues.

Finally, he'll calculate that whilst many voters will conclude that he's, well, a little bit chicken, it won't bother them enough to change how they vote.

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