Nick Clegg has said he is ready to take David Cameron’s place in a head-to-head TV debate with Ed Miliband if the Prime Minister refuses to take part.
Mr Cameron was accused of trying to “hold the debates to ransom” and “bully” broadcasters after he ruled out appearing in a televised one-on-one debate with the Labour leader.
Downing Street made a “final offer” to broadcasters on Wednesday, saying the Prime Minister will sign up only to one 90-minute contest involving at least seven party leaders to be held before the campaign formally begins on March 30.
Speaking on his weekly LBC radio phone-in, Mr Clegg said he is ready to take Mr Cameron’s place in the two-way debate planned by Sky News and Channel 4 for April 30 – exactly a week before the May 7 general election.
The Liberal Democrat leader said: “Having been in government for five years, I also have this old-fashioned view that I want to defend the record of this Government. If David Cameron is too busy or too important to defend the record of this Government with Ed Miliband, then I offer myself. I’ll do it instead.”
He said the Conservatives could not be allowed to veto the debates which the public wanted to see go ahead.
“I just can’t get over the lofty pomposity of the Conservatives that they should now deign to tell us that they’re too busy, too important, to lower themselves to the level of everybody else and actually have a debate with everybody else,” he said.
“It’s as if they think they are ordering a drink in the drawing room of Downton Abbey and telling everybody else what they should do. It’s not for one party to grandly tell everybody else what’s going to happen.”
Mr Cameron’s latest terms for taking part have been set out in a letter from his director of communications, Craig Oliver, to Sue Inglish, chairwoman of the broadcasters’ leaders’ debates committee.
It states: “In order to cut through this chaotic situation I am willing to make the following proposal: There should be one 90-minute debate between seven party leaders before the short campaign.
“As well as the Prime Minister, the leaders of the Green Party, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, SNP and Ukip should be invited.
“The leader of the DUP should be allowed to make his case for why he should be involved. If the broadcasters cannot agree amongst themselves who hosts the debate, lots should be drawn, though the debate should be freely available to whoever wants to broadcast it.
“In order for it to be organised in time, the debate should take place during the week beginning March 23. I will make myself available to negotiate the details. Having been the editor of numerous broadcast news and current affairs programmes, I know this is ample time to organise a programme.
“This is our final offer, and to be clear, given the fact this has been a deeply unsatisfactory process and we are within a month of the short campaign, the Prime Minister will not be participating in more than one debate.”
Labour sources accused the Tories of doing everything they can behind the scenes to “scupper the negotiations and sink the debates”.
Douglas Alexander, who is leading Labour’s general election strategy, said: “We continue to support the broadcasters’ proposals, including for seven-way debates alongside a two-way debate.
“But this is an outrageous attempt from the Prime Minister to bully the broadcasters into dropping their proposals for a head-to-head debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.”