Preparations were beginning in earnest today for Britain’s first televised general election leaders’ debates, after final agreement on the format for the live broadcasts was reached yesterday, writes PA chief political correspondent Andrew Woodcock.
Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will face one another in three 90-minute debates on ITV1, Sky News and BBC1 in the weeks before polling day, expected to be 6 May.
Pundits believe that the historic broadcasts could have a decisive effect on the campaign, with millions of voters tuning in to see who wins each showdown – and who makes the worst gaffe.
Strict rules thrashed out between the parties and broadcasters will govern the debates, with the leaders allowed a one-minute opening statement and a 90-second closing statement in each programme, along with time to answer questions and react to one another’s comments.
Half of each debate will be taken up by discussion on a particular theme – domestic affairs, international affairs and the economy – with further time for wider discussion on other issues.
The public will be able to put questions to the three party leaders, either as part of a studio audience or via email.
But commentators were last night warning that the potential for fiery clashes was reduced because audience members will not be allowed a follow-up question if they are unsatisfied with the response.
And the heavyweight interviewers hosting the debates – Alastair Stewart, Adam Boulton and David Dimbleby – will not be able to press evasive politicians for answers, as their role is limited to “moderating” and ensuring the rules are observed.
The complexity of the arrangements agreed for each of the debates is reflected in a detailed list of 76 rules, covering everything from the make-up of the audience and time limits on answers to dealing with topical stories and ensuring the three leaders finish by shaking hands.
Most of the 200-strong audience will be picked by pollsters ICM from the local area to ensure a balance of gender, age, ethnicity, social class and voting intention. They will be asked to applaud only at the start and end of the programme.
Conservatives were pressing today for the leaders’ debates to be extended to cover all departmental briefs.
And nationalist parties were outraged that all three of the events – renamed Prime Ministerial Debates in an apparent attempt to justify the exclusion of the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, who are not seeking to provide a PM – will be held in England.
The SNP’s leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson, said the decision would mean Scottish concerns were not even addressed.
He said: “It is unacceptable for the people of Scotland to be short-changed in this way. The broadcasters – in cahoots with the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour – are attempting to exclude entire countries from these leaders’ debates.”
Plaid Cymru’s director of communications Elin Jones said: “Plaid is very concerned that the wool is being pulled over people’s eyes and that a democratic deficit is being created with the plans for these debates. They are being set up in a way that will mislead people into thinking that only the London parties are taking part in this election.”
The BBC said it would give smaller parties – including the BNP – a guaranteed slot to respond to its debate on BBC1’s News at Ten, Newsnight and the next morning’s Radio 4 Today programme.
And each broadcaster will make its own arrangements about any additional events in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the BBC promising a separate debate in all three.