The government has been challenged to respond to the “massive” level of public support for TV election debates and make them compulsory.
Conservative MP Peter Bone, who hailed Sky News’ campaign to establish an independent commission to oversee debates, urged ministers to bring forward legislation during the next parliamentary session.
The Wellingborough MP made the call as he admitted his own bid to introduce such a law was unlikely to receive enough time to pass through parliament.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Bone praised a Sky News petition, which has attracted more than 142,000 signatures in less than six months and prompted an initial parliamentary debate on the proposal.
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He said the support for the petition “shows that the idea – although it is not a particularly sexy thing at a time when we are discussing Brexit and other things – is still very well supported by members of the public”.
“All the broadcasters have shown support for televised leaders debates but they have left it to Sky News to be proactive and lead the campaign,” he added.
Mr Bone spoke as he introduced a private members’ bill on leaders debates before general elections, which would legislate for:
- A minimum of three televised debates, at least one between the leaders of all parties in the Commons and at least two between the two biggest parties;
- An independent commission of seven members, three nominated by the Commons Speaker, two by broadcasters, one by the government and one by the opposition.
Mr Bone highlighted how Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had failed to agree the terms of a debate on the UK’s exit deal from the EU, despite both declaring their support for one.
“We have seen even when the parties have said they would like a debate on perhaps the most important issue in our lifetime, on Brexit, they have failed to make good on their promises,” he said.
Mr Bone also described Mrs May’s failure to take part in a TV debate before the 2017 election as “an insult to the fellow leaders who had put the time and effort to attend the debate”.
He claimed an independent commission would ensure TV election debates are not just “prepared statements and questions from a moderator”, adding: “It will be the party leaders questioning one another, debating directly with one another, challenging one another.
“A proper debate. As Oliver Cromwell might have said: ‘We want to see our party leaders, warts and all’.”
During the debate, other MPs also expressed their support for Mr Bone’s proposal.
Labour’s Sandy Martin said: “Clearly there has been a massive level of support for these debates from the general public.
“One of the things that really brought home to me just how important these television debates are to the general public is when they failed to get one, during the last general election, and felt shortchanged.”
Fellow Labour MP Thangham Debbonaire said: “If we’re going to criticise television debates for being so-called ‘presidential’ then that is kind of undermined by the fact we broadcast Prime Minister’s Questions.
“I applaud Prime Minister’s Questions but I would like to see greater debate during general elections when voters are actually making up their mind.”
However, Conservative MP Neil O’Brien branded TV election debates “trivialising” and “superficial”.
He said: “We are in a parliamentary rather than a presidential system and I think that each of the ones that has happened so far has actually reduced the amount of serious debate and serious interviews we’ve seen in general elections.”
Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Jo Platt pledged her party’s support for the proposal, telling MPs: “It surely sends out the wrong signal to voters that the most senior people in politics, those that lead our parties and even the country, are not required to come before the public and test out their policies and priorities.”
But Conservative MP Oliver Dowden, responding for the government, said there were “very obvious deficiencies” in Mr Bone’s bill.
The Cabinet Office minister added: “One should not seek to regulate unless it is absolutely necessary and I’m not convinced of such necessity, particularly in the case when we’re dealing with potentially infringing rights of freedom of press and broadcast.”
He told MPs the government believes election debates are “best determined by broadcasters and political parties” rather than a commission, established in legislation.
Mr Bone withdrew his bill rather than put it to a vote, noting that there was “clearly” not enough time for it to become law before the end of the current parliamentary session in June.