The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I will develop later. If we are to have regular leaders’ debates and formalise that process, it is absolutely right that that be managed by an independent commission—as he rightly says—to take it out of the hands of politicians and ensure that it is carried out in an orderly and fair manner. On extending this to deputy leaders, I am not sure I would go that far, but I believe that the deputy leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party is indeed keen for such a debate to take place.
We are here today to debate having debates, and I believe that this petition is very timely in its coming to the House, because there is no doubt that the nature of politics in this country has changed considerably in recent times. The growth of the 24-hour news cycle and the development of social media mean that what the public have come to expect of their political leaders has changed. We now generally expect our leaders to be much more visible and accessible than they were in previous generations. I believe that it is in this context that the matter of holding leaders’ debates must find its place.
Only last month we saw what can happen, when a debate was proposed between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on the EU withdrawal vote. After various to-ings and fro-ings, it proved very difficult to find agreement on that debate and it ended up not happening. I am not sure that what we saw take place last month reflected very well on our democratic process.
It is also interesting and worth noting that the petition had at that time reached around 60,000 signatures, and the number of signatures it was attracting had really slowed up. After that debate was proposed and then failed to take place, there was a sudden surge of signatures that pushed the petition well over the 100,000 mark very quickly. That shows the interest among the public in televised leaders’ debates, but also perhaps demonstrates the frustration that many people felt—the to-ing and fro-ing and horse-trading that went on at that time did not materialise into a debate taking place. There is clear evidence of an appetite among a large part of the public to see our political leaders debate on TV.