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Why The General Election Leaders' Debates Still Might Not Happen

The dispute over who should be included in the general election leaders' debates is rumbling on. The broadcasters haven't got complete agreement from the political parties, so are pushing ahead without them.

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How the 2010 debates looked.
Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire/Press Association Images

How the 2010 debates looked.

Britain's broadcasters on Monday announced the intended dates of this year's general election leaders' debates. The only problem is, some of the UK's political parties still aren't sure they want to take part – and those that do have an issue with the format.

As a result, the debate over the debate over when to hold the debates is still running, raising questions over whether they will still happen.

In one corner are the broadcasters, which are attempting to force the politicians into action by simply pushing ahead with their plans. They've announced the exact format and timings for each of the three debates, despite multiple disagreements among the people actually taking part.

But the disputes have got so bad that the major political parties – which had previously attempted to come to an agreement among themselves on the format – have been all-but-sidelined from the discussions. Instead, the whole thing is being announced by the BBC, ITV, Sky News, and Channel 4 as a done deal.

The political parties haven't taken this well.

"The broadcasters are not even allowing the political parties to enter into a room together," one individual with direct knowledge of of the talks told BuzzFeed News. "There has not been a proper discussion. There have been broadcasters issuing press releases, not looking before they leap."

The individual was particularly aggrieved at the decision to allow the SNP and Plaid Cymru to take part in the debates despite their relatively small number of MPs, ensuring the Northern Irish parties who have been excluded can kick up a fuss.

"It's a bit like inviting guests at a wedding," they said. "If you invite one group of cousins, you have to invite the others."

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Other sources with knowledge of the ongoing discussions refer to "hours and hours" of meetings between the press chiefs of the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and UKIP where almost nothing was achieved because almost no one was willing to give ground. They are said to have been going on for well over four months.

The Conservatives, the Lib Dems, and UKIP all have various reasons for objecting to the broadcasters' choice of format, which includes a single head-to-head between Ed Miliband and David Cameron, plus two seven-way debates between those two and the leaders of the Lib Dems, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP.

The Conservatives blame the 2010 debates for costing David Cameron a parliamentary majority and are desperate to avoid the debates altogether. First they argued that the Greens must be included, and when broadcasters acquiesced they began insisting the DUP should also take part.

The Lib Dems are furious that they've been downgraded from a party of government to the same status as Plaid Cymru. Meanwhile, UKIP – originally going to be one of just four parties included in the debate, with a monopoly on the anti-establishment role – is also not happy about being relegated to a place on the kids' table now that the Greens, SNP, and Plaid Cymru have all been invited.

That's without getting into the issue of Northern Ireland, where the DUP, with its eight MPs – more than both the SNP and Plaid – is threatening legal action over its exclusion.

Even Labour, who spent Monday openly taunting Cameron over his reluctance to take part in the debates, privately admit they're annoyed at the decision to include the SNP's Nicola Sturgeon.

The broadcasters have threatened to "empty chair" leaders who don't turn up to the debates. Whether anyone fails to turn up – and whether the TV channels make good on their threat – will become clear on 2 April.

Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Jim Waterson at jim.waterson@buzzfeed.com.

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