TV debate option re-opens as Unionists “deliver” Smith promises

Westminster MPs voted against the Assisted Dying Bill for England and Wales today. The Scottish Parliament rejected a similar move last May.

by Reporter

The UK broadcasters seem ready to compromise on the question of Scottish representation in the planned schedule of TV party leader debates during the general election campaign.

A seven-leader debate ?
A seven-leader debate ?

Details remain sketchy, but it is thought that the SNP and Plaid Cymru are to be invited to participate in the debates at some level, and that a formal approach will be made to the parties imminently.

Labour and Tories have been locked in an entrenched battle over the idea of TV debates. The proposed inclusion of UKIP angered Conservatives, who in turn have insisted that the Greens should be included, on the basis that a Green presence might dilute Labour in the way that UKIP might harm the Tory case.

It has been reported that the broadcasters – who reached a stalemate with their original proposals (which included UKIP but ignored the SNP, Plaid and Greens) – are planning a seven-headed debate that would bring First Minister Nicola Sturgeon into the fray.

This would be broadcast by the BBC and ITV. Sky News and Channel 4 also want to broadcast head to head debates featuring only David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

BBC director general Tony Hall
BBC director general Tony Hall

In an intriguing volte face, BBC director general Tony Hall told the Radio Times that including the three additional parties “made absolute sense”. The original proposals by the broadcasters, including the BBC, did not include that option.

The move has been made clearly to get the TV debate idea back on the table, following the Tories’ blocking of the original plans.

The SNP welcomed the changed proposals, if confirmed. The party has pointed out that it has a bigger membership than the Liberal Democrats and UKIP combined, and more elected MPs than the anti-European party.

Angus Robertson MP
Angus Robertson MP

Angus Robertson MP quoted a YouGov poll indicating that more people across the UK supported the idea of Sturgeon being included in the debates. “It is only fair that people north and south of the border have the opportunity to hear what the SNP have to say about reversing austerity, cancelling Trident and achieving new powers for Scotland,” he added.

Reports of the TV debate U-turn came as David Cameron visited Edinburgh to unveil the legislative package that the Unionist parties say will result in the fulfilment of the Smith Commission proposals.

“Scotland spoke, we listened and now here we are delivering,” said Cameron.

“What we’re publishing today is the best of both worlds – our vow kept, Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom strengthened, the Scottish Parliament more powerful, responsible and accountable to its people and powers that are built to last, securing our united future.”

While the SNP says that the bill has certain compromises on what was agreed by the commission, including a possible veto on certain welfare powers, it remains unclear whether the bill can be enacted by the next Parliament.

The Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems say that their commitment means the next Government will definitely implement the proposals. This assumes, however, that they control Parliament after May 7.

The TV proposals have been welcomed by the Greens in England, and Plaid Cymru. Tonight, the Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson issued a statement arguing that they should also be included in the deal.