BBC political editor Nick Robinson – or another leading journalist or presenter – could be asked to play David Cameron in the TV leaders’ debates.
The intriguing possibility emerged after the main broadcasters insisted that they were prepared to “empty chair” the Prime Minister following his refusal to agree to their plans for three separate TV election debates.
According to sources at media regulator Ofcom, a debate without Cameron but featuring the main political leaders would not necessarily be out of the question as long as strict impartiality rules are observed.
This could mean, for example, a presenter or journalist like Sky’s Adam Boulton or Robinson – who is undergoing medical treatment but is expected to cover the election – standing in for the PM. Their job would be to put an alternative view based on the Tory manifesto.
This would avoid the so-called election window or “purdah” rules which for this election last from March 30 to polling day on May 7, inclusive.
The rules are mainly designed to stop government departments using policy to promote a party in the days before an election. But the laws also oblige media regulator Ofcom to oversee especially strict impartiality rules on what is broadcast in this period as well.
At the moment Cameron is demanding a single seven-way debate with the leaders of Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the SNP.
This, apparently, is a “final offer” from the PM which the broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 have rejected.
A statement was issued by all the main broadcasters on Friday insisting that they would be sticking with their original plans.
Under the broadcasters’ plans, the debates were due to kick off on April 2nd with a seven-way debate on ITV moderated by news anchor Julie Etchingham.
The ITV debate will be followed on April 16th by a contest between the same leaders broadcast on BBC1 and hosted by David Dimbleby.
The final instalment will be a head-to-head between Conservative leader David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband, simulcast on Sky 1 and Channel 4 on April 30th. The two-way contest will be moderated by former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman with Sky’s Kay Burley introducing the programme and presenting the post-debate analysis.
The statement says: “The broadcasters would like the Prime Minister to reconsider taking part in all of these debates. 22 million people watched the leaders’ debates in 2010 and there is a public desire and expectation for them to happen again in 2015.
“The broadcasters proposals have come after extensive work over the last six months to ensure the public have the opportunity to watch televised election debates once more. The group have worked in an independent, impartial manner, treating invited parties on an equitable basis. They have listened to the views expressed by all parties and adapted the proposals to take into account electoral support.
“The broadcasters will continue to work closely with all parties invited to take part in the televised debates to bring them to their millions of viewers across the UK. The heads of news of all four broadcasters would welcome the opportunity to meet Mr Cameron, or his representatives, to discuss the debates.”
One possibility is broadcasting the debate on YouTube. This proposal has the backing of the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian and would be free of the election window rules.
A change.org petition calling on Cameron to take part in the debates has so far raised more than 47,000 signatures.