The case for a Commission on TV debates

The introduction of TV leadership debates was an important landmark in British democracy. It was not the sort of thing that should be arranged last thing on a Friday night, as if one had just left the pub, discovered hunger & resolved to find a kebab.

But history progresses in fits and starts. Nobody gets shot until the moment you actually pull the trigger. No matter how long the rumination, the big decisions are always sudden.

Gordon had been leaning towards doing the TV debates for a long time and was pretty much decided by the summer of 2009. It was the right thing to do. And, of course, our crude political calculation was that it would help us.

During the summer, we had done research on the different formats of debate that took place in other countries. We looked at Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the United States.

How many debates were there? Who took part? What was the format? Were they themed? Who decides the questions? Who asked the questions? Where did they take place? And most importantly, who decides each of those things?

After looking at what other countries did, we then began to weigh up which of those options would give Gordon the best possible advantage over Cameron.

A series of themed debates — on foreign affairs, the economy & public services — would play to Gordon’s strengths. Show him to be Prime Ministerial. Expose Cameron’s lack of experience.

If we could get a debate in a city in the North that would feel like playing on home turf — or at least taking Cameron out of his comfort zone. And we wanted Gordon to be able to trade blows and land his heavyweight clunking fist. So direct confrontation should be part of it.

What about the presenter? If you follow the news, you hear the same voices on the TV & radio every day. All of us end up with someone we find reasonable, no matter what they say, & someone who grates. Prime Ministers are no different in this regard.

So we also had a clear idea of the people who Gordon would like to ask the questions. And who he would not. Gordon — eyes narrowed, brown furrowed, face blank, his great jaw clenched, quietly seething at the presenter — was not the look we wanted.

We had two pieces of work: a list of examples of how TV debates are run around the world; and a list of our political preferences for each of those options. What we still needed was a process for how to get from one to the other. Who should decide on the rules? That is what we were still struggling over.

The Americans have the Commission on Presidential Debates to oversee the process. The CPD was not apolitical: it was co-chaired by a former Democrat National Committee chair & Republican National Committee Chair. But its mere existence helped to force agreement.

I had started to sketch out what an equivalent Commission on Prime Ministerial Debates might look like.

We discussed the idea of a small commission set up by the Speaker or the Electoral Commission but we figured handing power to Parliament or the Commission would make it formal & more likely to get deadlocked. Plus, we’d lose control.

We came back to the US model of an appointed rather than elected group, led by a Labour and Tory grandee who would sit in the driving seat but with representation from the Lib Dems, broadcasters and perhaps some academic constitutional experts.

Its establishment would, in effect, take the decision of whether to hold a TV debate out of the hands of the Prime Minister but it would leave the two main parties largely in control of what the debates looked like.

It was an idea, a sketch — not a real proposal — and this was as far as we got before conference came along. Gordon’s mind was made up: he wanted to do the debate but how exactly we still had no clear plan so it was put on the back burner.

A week of Labour conference bowls you over. Knocks out the plans you had. Leaves you deficient of sleep & reason. Then you get a little respite at the end of the week before you gear up again for Tory conference.

Friday evening after conference should be a time to ignore politics, eat vegetables and watch TV. But this post-conference Friday evening, the coven of advisers to which I belonged were back around the cauldron trying to work some tired, dark magic.

Gordon had pulled the trigger. He had not only decided he wanted the debates: he wanted to announce it *immediately* before Tory conference began. It would take away a Tory attack line and the news would barrel across their conference.

The key unresolved issue was the commission: who would lead it for us and how should its membership be decided. We needed to conjure something up urgently.

I thought Jack Straw was the obvious candidate. As Justice Secretary, he had some constitutional responsibilities and he had the political nous to negotiate the press. His opposite number would be Dominic Grieve who was capable of rising above the purely partisan.

Even if we had no details at this stage, we could announce that Jack would establish a new commission. We’d be back on the front foot and we could take a little more time to get it right.

But this was still too complicated for a Friday night. Gordon was due on a train the next morning to go to a wedding. No one had even spoken to Jack about the idea, let alone the rest of the Cabinet and the press advisers needed to start briefing.

Ed Miliband was scheduled to be doing a media round and so someone suggested we just get Ed to announce it. Another adviser voiced doubt: Ed probably has flu. What do you mean ‘probably’? Oh, I saw him on the conference dancefloor last night and it now seems probable he has flu.

David Miliband and Ben Bradshaw were both due to do media rounds later in the day but that would be too late. What about Peter Mandelson? No, Peter is off-piste. In fact, Peter’s on a plane. Harriet? Yes! No, Harriet isn’t around. Damn, we’re running out of time.

We had been drafting a letter to party members that would accompany the announcement. On a Friday night, it was all we had. Let’s just use that. Send the email to party members and the email can be both the hook and the narrative.

What about telling Jack?

We haven’t got time to get Jack to buy in.

What about the commission?

Forget the commission. We don’t have time.

We just have to get the announcement out.

We have to do it now.

So that’s how the TV debates were set up.

A bodge job. It worked the first time but now it’s broke. In 2017, 56% of people wanted the Prime Minister to take part in a TV debate. Only 20% did not. If we had set up a Commission, the debate would have happened.

When we set up the TV debates on a Friday night after conference, we didn’t build it to last. Yes, I know there is Brexit. There are a million other things. But now is the time to fix it.

We are not in immediate sight of an election. Neither party is in the ascendancy. Instead of being remembered as the Prime Minister who hid from the TV debates, Theresa May could be the one who ensures that no leader ever ducks them again.