Broadcasters and Downing Street were at loggerheads on Friday after the television companies made it clear they would press ahead with plans to hold three separate election debates, whether David Cameron took part or not.
The networks said they would go ahead with plans for three debates during the election campaign – two between seven party leaders, and one a proposed head-to-head between the prime minister and Ed Miliband.
Downing Street described the announcement as disappointing, and said it was willing to discuss the logistics of Cameron’s proposal to take part in one seven-way debate before the campaign begins.
With neither side backing down, it appeared increasingly likely that Cameron would be “empty chaired”.
In a letter to the prime minister’s director of communications, Craig Oliver, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky said they would stick by their revised plans to hold three debates.
In a response to the broadcasters, Oliver wrote: “I made the prime minister’s final position clear in my last letter – he is willing to do a seven-way debate in the week beginning 23 March.
“Clearly it is disappointing that you are not prepared to take him up on that offer. I am ready to discuss at your convenience the logistics of making the debate we have suggested happen.”
The broadcasters’ statement, published on Friday, followed several hours of meetings between senior executives at the channels. It came in response to a letter from Oliver sent on Wednesday to the chair of the broadcasters’ leaders’ debate committee, Sue Inglish, to say Cameron was only willing to take part in one 90-minute debate between the seven party leaders before the dissolution of parliament at the end of March.
The broadcasters said they “welcome the fact that the prime minister has for the first time agreed to take part in a televised debate”.
“However, the group believes there needs to be two seven-way debates of a minimum of two hours each, within the election campaign, allowing time to properly represent the views of all parties, covering a broad range of subjects,” they said.
“The broadcasters also believe that a head to head debate between the two individuals who could become prime minister - David Cameron and Ed Miliband – is important – something the prime minister has publicly supported.”
Labour leader Miliband said it was “make your mind up time for David Cameron”.
“He can keep running from these debates with me and show himself to be a weak leader running from his record. Or he can agree to the debates which the British people deserve and that our democracy needs.”
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, tweeted: “Come on David Cameron. You haven’t got your own way so accept it and take part.”
The broadcasters confirmed they would “continue with the series of televised leaders’ debates as planned in the general election campaign”.
Challenged by Labour that he was running away from the TV encounters, Cameron claimed on Thursday he was “unblocking the log jam” created by what he alleged was the broadcasters’ inept handling of the issue.
Clegg, thestand-out beneficiary of the debates in 2010, responded by offering to stand in for Cameron in a head-to-head against Miliband to defend the government record. “If David Cameron is too busy or important to defend the record of this government, then I offer myself. I’ll do it instead, I am assuming the role of just about the only person who is willing to step up to the plate and defend the record of this government.”
Miliband accused the prime minister of “cowering from the public”, arguing that “the British people deserve this debate.”
The Ukip leader Nigel Farage welcomed the news that the broadcasters were sticking by their original plan. “I am pleased that the broadcasters have stood firm at last, but it would have been far better had they stuck with their original proposal which included fewer parties,” he said. “Nonetheless, we accept the challenge.”
The broadcasters on Friday reissued their timetable of three debates on 2 April, hosted by ITV and a BBC debate on 16 April, both of which would feature all seven party leaders, and a Cameron-Miliband head to head on Channel 4 and Sky News on 30 April.
The statement added: “As Sky News and Channel 4 have already said, they are prepared to hold the two-party debate on a different date if the leaders of the Labour and Conservative parties can agree on a date.
“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.”
Broadcasters held a meeting on Friday morning to discuss how to break the deadlock over the televised general election debates.
In revised proposals put forward in January, after their original plans for the debates unveiled in October were knocked back by Downing Street, the TV chiefs said they would “empty chair” any party leaders who refused to take part.