Another British political tradition ends

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There used to be a set procedure for discussing a leaders’ debate in General Elections: the leader of the opposition would propose it a couple of months before the election, the Prime Minister would say nothing but their spokespeople would umm and ahh over it, the leader(s) of the third party would then chime in and demand to be involved, various possible conditions for a debate that no one could agree on would be floated around, and then the whole idea would just wither away as the election campaign itself took over the headlines.

Now, it seems that we’re actually going to get not just one, but three, with Brown, Cameron and Clegg involved in all of them. Given that Sky have pledged to ’empty chair’ anyone who doesn’t want a debate, and that the three broadcasters have agreed to co-operate on this, it’s hard to see how anyone can get out of it now that it has a momentum.

So now, I find myself wondering what they’ll be like. Someone at ITV is probably trying to work out if there’s a way to get Cheryl Cole and/or Simon Cowell as the moderator for their debate, while I also expect that someone at the BBC is hard at work on a way to involve Twitter, Facebook and whatever internet fad emerges over the next six months in the process as part of their usual down-with-the-kids attempt to look ‘relevant’. As his contract seems to require him to appear on every BBC programme at some point, I wouldn’t rule out John Barrowman as the moderator either.

In fact, it might well be Sky that stage the most traditional and ‘dull’ debate, with Adam Boulton asking carefully neutral questions, while the three leaders stand behind their podiums to answer. They’ve got their triumph by making these debates happen, and Sky One/Sky News is guaranteed one of its largest ever audiences, with no need for gimmicks. They get bracketed as one of the UK’s key broadcasters alongside the BBC and ITV, clips from their debate (with their logo stuck on) will get shown on the news and in the papers regardless of what they do, so why take risks? Leave that to the others, and instead just sit back and enjoy the ratings.