The snap election on 8th June has sent TV schedulers scrambling to book in their political pundits and big-name hosts for seven weeks of coverage.
But how to approach the thorny issue of the televised debates? Who should be invited, what format should they take, and should they even happen at all? As the broadcasters pin down their plans over the next week, here’s your guide to everything we know.
Will the party leaders take part in head-to-head TV debates?
Despite ITV already announcing plans for a televised debate, Prime Minister Theresa May has said she isn’t willing to take part in a head-to-head with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn or Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron (though, seeing as we’re having a snap election, it seems no decision is ever certain in politics).
May told Radio 4’s Today programme that she preferred to “get about and meet voters” instead.
The other party leaders have slammed May for ducking out of the debates, with some raising the possibility of “empty-chairing” the PM.
Corbyn said: “I say to Theresa May, who said this election was about leadership: come on and show some. Let’s have the debates. It’s what democracy needs and what the British people deserve.”
Farron accused her of “bottling” out, while Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “If PM doesn’t have the confidence to debate her plans on TV with other leaders, broadcasters should empty chair her and go ahead anyway.”
What could happen instead of a TV debate?
May has now said she is willing to be questioned by journalists and the public on TV during the election campaign, instead of facing off with other party leaders in a formal debate.
The PM is reportedly considering “a range of TV formats”. No word yet on whether this will be a Question Time style show or something more left-field – perhaps she will pop up on Britain’s Got Talent to sing an election-themed song? Or will the party leaders turn up in EastEnders’ Queen Vic to take questions from the residents of Albert Square?
Are TV debates a standard part of the election campaign?
No. In the UK they are a relatively new innovation – so new that broadcasters haven’t really settled on conventions or a standard format.
The first leaders’ debates were in 2010 when Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg took part in three 90-minute sessions. The first was on ITV with Alastair Stewart, the second was on BSkyB with Adam Boulton, and the third was on the BBC with David Dimbleby.
The Lib Dem leader threw a bit of a curveball and came out on top, sparking an unexpected trend of “Clegg-mania”. “I agree with Nick” became a running joke as other leaders found unexpected common ground with Clegg and his policies.
Were there debates for the 2015 General Election?
By the 2015 General Election, the main parties were much more wary. There were protracted arguments about which parties should be represented, ending in a seven-way debate where David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg were also joined by UKIP’s Nigel Farage, the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood.
There was also a spin-off debate between the “challengers” (everyone but the Lib Dems and Conservatives), another between Cameron and Miliband, and one with the Labour, Lib Dem and Tory leaders where they just answered questions instead of debating.
How about the EU referendum debates?
There were televised debates for the EU referendum, with the ‘in’ and ‘out’ campaigns getting their chance to do battle. Channel 4 held a debate hosted by Jeremy Paxman on the eve of the referendum, and there was also a live BBC debate from Wembley Arena. These involved not just party leaders but key figures in the campaigns, including Sadiq Khan, Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and Ruth Davidson.
On ITV, Conservative Prime Minister Cameron and UKIP leader Nigel Farage each submitted to question and answer sessions, and on Sky, Cameron and Michael Gove had their own grillings.
Cameron avoided a head-to-head – so May’s refusal is not unprecedented.
Do TV debates change voters’ minds?
The jury is still out. They can certainly attract high ratings: a peak of 10.3 million watched the first debate in 2010, though only 4 million watched the second. In 2015 a peak of 7.4 million watched the seven-way debate. It’s no Strictly Come Dancing, but those are still impressively high figures.
The Reuters Institute found “strong evidence” that the 2010 election debates “increased the interest and involvement of voters”, especially among first time voters – in fact, 92% of young people reported talking about the debates afterwards. And following the 2015 elections, a Panelbase survey found that 38% were “influenced” by the debates.
Televised debates can offer voters the chance to hear what each party represents and how well they can defend their ideas. It is a chance to connect with viewers and lay out the options. But going head-to-head is also a risk for party leaders, and it is one May might not be willing to take…
The General Election will take place on 8th June 2017