REUTERS /Peter Nicholls / Neil Hall
LONDON — Theresa May has ruled out taking part in any televised general election debates before the planned June 8 vote.
Asked whether the prime minister would take part in televised debates, a Conservative spokesperson said this afternoon: "Our answer is no."
Labour immediately accused May of "dodging" the debates, while the Liberal Democrats said her position shows she "holds the public in contempt."
May's reluctance is unlikely to deter the broadcasters, however. The BBC, ITV, Sky, and Channel 4 are yet to comment on the matter (and are unlikely to until the election is rubber-stamped by Parliament on Wednesday) but privately they will be keen to stage events.
They faced similar obstacles in 2015 when David Cameron was reticent to engage with the debates. Eventually, the former prime minister agreed to a seven-way debate on ITV and an interview with Jeremy Paxman and Kay Burley on Channel 4 and Sky News — but only after protracted and often tense negotiations.
The broadcasters may look to strike a similar compromise this year, but they will have a much shorter time frame to agree on the rules of engagement. The 2015 election debate formats were agreed with the political parties more than six weeks before Britain headed to the polls. We are now six weeks away from June 8 and no talks have taken place.
"If this general election is about leadership, as Theresa May said this morning, she should not be dodging head-to-head TV debates," Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said.
The Liberal Democrats called on broadcasters to go ahead with the debates, even without May.
"The Prime Minister’s attempt to dodge scrutiny shows how she holds the public in contempt," Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said.
"The British people deserve to see their potential leaders talking about the future of our country. I expect the broadcasters to do the right thing, don’t let the Conservatives call the shots. If the Prime Minister won’t attend — empty chair her — Corbyn can defend her position as they seem to vote the same on these matters. You have a moral duty to hold these debates."
"I believe this election is your chance to change the direction of our country. If you want to avoid a disastrous Hard Brexit. If you want Britain to have a decent opposition. If you want a Britain that is open, tolerant and united – this is your chance. You need to vote Liberal Democrat."
Televised debates were first staged in Britain in 2010. Three live television battles (broadcasting on ITV, Sky, and the BBC respectively) between then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his rivals Cameron and Nick Clegg were a success for the broadcasters, pulling in a combined 22 million viewers.
They led to a large, but ultimately temporary bump in the polls for then Liberal Democrat leader Clegg. Brown, however, did not benefit from taking part in the events.
Conservative party sources suggest May wanted to shut down speculation about her participation early on. With the Tories up to 21 points ahead in some polls, agreeing to debates was seen as an unnecessary risk.
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