UK Politics

How No 10 'dodged' 2015 election debates

Screengrab from the leaders' debate Image copyright AFP
Image caption Talks about the televised debates involved "political game playing", says Ric Bailey

There were some fractious negotiations between broadcasters and politicians about the televised debates during the 2015 general election. Now, Grant Shapps - Conservative Party co-chairman at the time - says No 10 set about frustrating the talks.

Millions of people all over the world watched the big face-to-face TV debate between US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

What's not to like about two strikingly different people on stage, fighting it out for a big prize?

It's a simple, no-frills format which seems popular with US voters.

Televised debates have been part of American political life for a while but the British political establishment has always been rather sniffy about them - arguing that they're too presidential, not the British way.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThere was disarray over British TV debates says former Conservative Chairman Grant Shapps

There's been talk of televised debates in the UK since the 1960s when the Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home dismissed them as "a sort of Top of the Pops contest".

But over time, the political classes have relaxed their grip and the broadcasters have got more pushy. So by the 2010 general election - after some marathon negotiations - the UK held its first televised prime ministerial debates.

Those were the days when Gordon Brown was prime minister, the Conservative leader was David Cameron and the leader of the Liberal Democrats was Nick Clegg.

The 90-minute debate catapulted Mr Clegg into the limelight and produced that memorable line from Gordon Brown: "I agree with Nick".

Image caption "I agree with Nick" was the line of the night in 2010

There were three debates in all, watched by an estimated 22 million people - many of whom usually switch off when political programmes come on.

That's a success in most people's books. But televised prime ministerial debates are not, by any means, a done deal for a general election in 2020, if not before.

That's because these events require a spirit of co-operation between the broadcasters and the political parties.

In 2010 the mood was amicable. But things were far from friendly during negotiations for the 2015 election debates. There were reports of "fractious" private meetings and in public, there were intricate debates about which parties should participate.

Hanging over the talks was the threat of a political party pulling out altogether - a nightmare scenario for broadcasters who are duty-bound to be impartial.

Political game-playing

The BBC's chief politics adviser, Ric Bailey, was a key player in the discussions of 2010 and 2015.

Writing about the 2015 debates in a chapter for a forthcoming academic book - Political Communications in Great Britain: The General Election of 2015 - he says: "The spirit in which debates were set up for this election could not have been more different from how it was in 2010. Only a month before the 2015 campaign began, nothing was settled."

He says the 2015 talks were characterised by "public position taking, political game-playing and a lack of consensus between the parties".

Involved in the negotiations were four broadcasters - the BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4 - and four political parties.

Image caption The inclusion of Nigel Farage put the cat among the pigeons

Political life in 2015 was more complicated than in 2010. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had been in coalition for five years. UKIP and the SNP were now forces to be reckoned with.

The broadcasters' original plan was simple. They proposed three debates:

  • Cameron and Miliband
  • Cameron, Miliband and Clegg
  • Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage

The inclusion of Nigel Farage was a critical moment. As Ric Bailey puts it: "The cat duly landed among the pigeons."

Out came the argument - from David Cameron among others - that the Greens should be involved too. And what about the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland?

Why had Mr Cameron become the Greens' best friend?

The former co-chairman of the Conservative Party, Grant Shapps has offered an explanation.

He said what many commentators had speculated at the time - that David Cameron and his officials had doubts about head-to-head debates and so tried to frustrate the process.

'Slightly freaked'

In a frank interview on BBC Radio 4's PM programme, Grant Shapps said: "We played those arguments endlessly last time to suggest that maybe the DUP in Northern Ireland should be involved and if the Greens are in then what about....We played those things endlessly actually to the advantage of politicians basically dodging having to do the debates. Privately, behind the scenes, that's exactly what was going on."

He recalled that, as leader of the Opposition, David Cameron had promised to be "available anytime" but as prime minister there was "a bit of a debate" about whether he should get involved.

Mr Cameron was "slightly freaked" because he had not done as well as expected in the 2010 debates and that "put him off doing them again", he added.

"That's when Nick Clegg had his big break. When it came to 2015 there was a great deal of hesitation in No 10. Some of the advisers were very much against him doing it."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Trump-Clinton debate was watched on US TV by 84 million people

At the time, Downing Street criticised the "chaos" of the negotiating process.

But Grant Shapps also suggested that No 10 was engaged in a classic divide-and-rule strategy.

He said: "What was happening behind the scenes was basically No. 10 was taking advantage of a large amount of disarray amongst the British broadcasters, so that they didn't come up with a single plan. Because of that No 10 was able to dodge the bullet and I don't think that's good for democracy."

He went on to accuse broadcasters of failing to get together "early enough" and propose formats that "couldn't be wriggled out of", until it was too late.

"In other words, they left the political parties and the politicians too much space, too much wriggle room."

The broadcasters strongly dispute Mr Shapps' claim that they were in "disarray". On the contrary, they say there were were no differences between them on the plans.

At the time, Channel 4's political editor, Gary Gibbon, summed up No 10's position like this: "The tactic has been to keep trying to paint the whole process as chaotic, while quietly trying to make sure it was as chaotic as possible."

Image caption David Cameron appeared on a BBC Question Time special during the 2015 general election

The upshot was that Mr Cameron took part in a two-hour debate between seven party leaders - the only one in which he interacted directly with other politicians.

He also took part in two other programmes, taking questions from the audience but not debating with fellow party leaders.

Whether this set-up showed David Cameron in his best light is a judgement call - but he did go on to win the general election with a majority, forming the first Conservative-only government since 1992.

The Guardian journalist, Peter Walker, writing at the time, called it a "four-stage blancmange of a debate process".

The Liberal Democrat Jonny - now Lord - Oates took part in both sets of negotiations. He agrees with Grant Shapps, saying it was "quite clear" that David Cameron wanted to avoid the debates.

He is critical of the broadcasters, calling the process "absolutely shocking" and saying they had allowed Mr Cameron to "get away with it".

The Liberal Democrats were also furious that Nick Clegg - the deputy prime minister at the time - was not involved in two of the debates.

The BBC's Ric Bailey says that broadcasters have to make judgements, there is no "mathematical formula".

"By definition, some - even all - of the parties will sometimes be unhappy with those judgements and cry foul. The noise of that dissent doesn't necessarily mean the broadcasters have made the wrong judgement."

Image caption A group hug after the BBC's challengers' debates - David Cameron wasn't present

Why did David Cameron, apparently, go off debates?

At its heart, there's a simple calculation to be made. Is it going to be good for me? The prevailing wisdom is that if you are ahead in the polls or you are the prime minister, it is not worth the risk.

Ric Bailey states: "On the whole, prime ministers don't want them unless they're fairly sure they're going to lose the election. Usually, they fear it grants an equality to their main opponents, allowing a leader of the Opposition to appear prime ministerial."

"The second simple truth is that any party, in government or opposition, which is confident of winning - typically, but not necessarily because it is well ahead in the polls - will resist attempts to jeopardise its position through the unpredictability of debates."

A survey of just over 3,000 people, carried out by Panelbase after last year's election, found that 38% of voters considered the debates to have influenced their voting intention.

Daunting prospect

It is encouraging news at a time of public cynicism about politics. But for a politician, taking part in an event that can influence a voter's decision is a daunting prospect.

To be fair to David Cameron, there's nothing wrong with trying to maximise your chances of winning an election.

But if debates can only take place when all parties think they could benefit - is this really the best way to run the show?

In the US, there's a special commission to manage presidential debates. It is an idea backed by UKIP and one that the Lib Dem Lord Oates is sympathetic to as well.

But it is unlikely to get off the ground. A Lords committee investigating televised debates has already concluded that the US model could not work in the UK.

So without any radical solutions on the horizon, it looks as if the negotiations for the next set of debates will be, as ever, at the mercy of events, personalities and opinion polls.

More on this story