Televised Election Debates — [Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:03 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 5:03 pm, 7th January 2019

My hon. Friend might say that, but I couldn’t possibly do so. However, I certainly agree with the first bit. When I promote my private Member’s Bill, I will explain why the debate should be between only the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition: in a leaders’ debate, we look at who is going to be Prime Minister.

Those of us in this Chamber get some spin-off advantages from leaders’ debates. For us constituency candidates, there is nothing worse than to be told that we are to get a visit from the leader of our party, because we know that we will lose days of campaigning as a result. First, we will be asked to find a suitable venue that ties into everything the leader wants to promote. Desperately, we find somewhere, talk to people and they agree, but then the party officials say, “No, we don’t want that”, and ask for something else. Eventually, they decide on somewhere else and they send down an advance team of young people who boss us around and tell us how to run things in our own constituency—that is another day lost. In time, the leader turns up and we get a PR event—they used to be called “Cameron Direct”—where people ask difficult questions of the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition.

But that was not the case: all those questions were planted. There was no real debate at all and we lost three or four days of campaigning. If we had leaders’ debates, that would at least give us a few days on which they would not be able to visit us in our constituencies.

Where I disagree slightly with the idea that leaders’ debates dominate the decision making of the British public. I do not think that that is the case, nor that there is a national swing any more. Voters are much more savvy now, voting on what is in their interests. The last general election had all sorts of strange results, but if votes had been determined purely by the party leaders and what they said, the results would have been much more uniform. The debates do not make that sort of difference, but they are an important part of the democratic process.

Those who argue against televised debates say they are all about performance, not substance. Is that not what people used say before the Houses of Parliament were televised? There were exactly the same arguments, and we now know that they were completely wrong.

I really wanted to talk about my private Member’s Bill on the televised leaders’ debates commission, which was given its First Reading in 2017 and is scheduled to be debated on 15 March. It is the second Bill on that day, the first being the Prime Minister (Accountability to House of Commons) Bill, which also stands in my name. I assure the House that if that Bill is not moved, the first Bill will be on the leaders’ debate. We have an opportunity in March to move the whole process forward. The Government have little legislative time because of Brexit, but this is a private Member’s Bill. On 15 March, if nobody objects, we can move forward and make the Bill an Act of Parliament. I hope that the Opposition and the Government will allow the House to make its own decision on this matter and not try to block the Bill with some parliamentary procedure.

Much of what Sky News says is already proposed in my Bill: to set up an independent commission responsible for holding a number of leaders’ debates during the regulated period. My Bill calls for three debates: one with the leaders of all the parties represented in the House of Commons at the time of the general election, and the second and third between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. As my hon. Friend Adam Holloway mentioned, we want a debate between people who are likely to be Prime Minister, although I do not want to leave out the smaller parties.

There is a problem that I accept: by having a debate between the leaders of the parties in the House of Commons, not every party will be included. But would we really want a communist party or the British National party in the debate? I think not. There was a serious problem with the UK Independence party, when at the height of its power it had no MPs but clearly had very large support. I would leave it to the commission to decide whether to bring any other party leaders into the debate, but the leader of any party represented in the House would have to attend. By the way, attendance would not be optional; the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition could not offload it to someone. No; they would have to attend.

People say the debates would take up lots of the party leaders’ time, but if they had to prep for weeks on end they could not be much good as a leader. They should know what they think, and be able to go out and debate. Under my Bill, there would be proper debates. The moderator would ask a question, but the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition could debate with each other, back and forth. There would be an actual debate, not rehearsed lines delivered before they moved on.

We can argue that we do not have a presidential system, but we have moved a very long way towards a presidential system since Tony Blair. I remember in the last election, Conservative MPs were all there, standing with Theresa. That was the message—it went down well—because the leader is so associated with local politics.