The House of Commons renders the proposed television debate on Brexit utterly superfluous

It is hard to see how the different Brexit alternatives can be presented anything like as well on TV as they will be in Parliament.

At first glance, Theresa May’s push for a television debate with Jeremy Corbyn looks understandable as part of her drive to be seen doing everything she can to persuade people of the merits of her Brexit deal.

The Prime Minister wishes to demonstrate she will leave no stone unturned and spare herself no exertion between now and the vote on 11th December. She is also confident she has a far greater command than Corbyn of the meaning and detail of her proposals, so has good chances of showing him up as a lazy thinker who has not gripped the subject.

But the more one examines how the debate might actually work, the odder it looks, and the less surprising it has become a stumbling block, with no agreement even about whether the BBC or ITV will host it.

Brexit is a horribly complicated subject, with a wide range of mutually contradictory outcomes being canvassed by devoted adherents, ranging from No Deal to the Norway option to a second referendum. It is obvious May and Corbyn have no interest in doing justice to these different ideas.

The Prime Minister is determined to frame this as a choice between her deal and chaos. She is entitled to push that line, but the broadcasters cannot allow themselves to become mere tools in Downing Street’s propaganda offensive.

So the BBC proposed a panel of 20, half of whom would back the PM and half of whom would canvass other options. It then agreed to reduce the panel to ten, split the same way.

What scope for rancour there is in this proposal. No one is likely to feel that in the small amount of time available, his or her cherished ideas about the best way forward have been represented as well as they deserve to be represented.

Happily, there exists a better way of having this debate. A chamber exists in which 40 hours have already been set aside for it, with over 600 members on hand to represent the different points of view.

This chamber has rules of debate which have evolved over a long period, and which enable opposing points of view to be expounded and challenged. It can and does oblige the Prime Minister to attend for hours on end, in order to answer every possible question, not just from the Leader of the Opposition but from the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, the Democratic Unionists, the Liberals and from many Conservative and other backbenchers who have important and often inconvenient points about which they wish to inquire.

The Members of this House, who have been elected under clearly understood rules by the whole nation, feel themselves under pressure to be intelligible, and if possible to make their arguments in pithy and witty form, for there is then the greatest chance of getting what they have to say across to the wider public. They can be lobbied by their constituents, and find it prudent to remain aware of local opinion, while also exercising their informed judgment on the often very intricate and contentious questions which need to be resolved.

The House has a quick-witted chairman whose duty is to facilitate this process, learned clerks who know how to give legal form to the different options, and voting procedures which enable decisions to be taken. There are also press and public galleries from which the debate can be watched and reported, and the proceedings will, incidentally, be televised.

Why hold the other, much shorter television debate, under improvised and inevitably unsatisfactory rules of procedure, when this far superior forum, known as the House of Commons, already exists?

Brexit shambles descends into debate farce

You really couldn’t make up the state of British politics at the moment. The monstrous shambles that is Brexit is bad enough. A governing party riven by toxic split. An opposition that should be 20 points ahead in the polls but is excelling itself only in being more useless than the Government. In recent days […]

You really couldn’t make up the state of British politics at the moment. The monstrous shambles that is Brexit is bad enough. A governing party riven by toxic split. An opposition that should be 20 points ahead in the polls but is excelling itself only in being more useless than the Government.

In recent days there has been talk of a tv debate between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn but even that can’t be sorted out. At the time of writing, Theresa May’s going to be on the BBC while Corbyn is cosying up to ITV, saying he wants it all over for the I’m a Celebrity final. I mean, really, the biggest substantive difference between the two is over which channel hosts the debate.

Certainly, if it ends up on the BBC, the trajectory of the evening will be markedly downward from Doctor Who to Strictly to the My Brexit’s bigger than Your Brexit despairathon.

It looks as though David Attenborough’s Dynasties will be booted to a later date. In a quiet but lovely corner of the internet, the wonderful Richard Flowers imagined the debate with an Attenborough voiceover:

Here… in the bleak midwinter… we see the skeletal remains of a Prime Minister being picked over by the vultures from her own Party, whilest a lst sheep in a loose collection of flappy organic rags bleats incoherant mantras about a Jobs First Bexit… And all about them, the country dies…

Vince, Nicola Sturgeon and the People’s Vote campaign are all rightly narked that they are being left out. I mean, after all, why wouldn’t they want to show an alternative opinion that might bring in more viewers?

This evening, Sal Brinton and Nick Harvey have written to BBC Chairman Lord Hall to suggest that the debate as currently planned might breach Ofcom rules. I’m not sure about that, because there’s no actual election, but the party is seeing legal advice. Here’s the text of their letter. 

Further to the letter from the Liberal Democrats on the 27th November, you will be aware of reports indicating that the BBC have offered to host a debate between the Prime Minister and the Labour Leader.

We are deeply concerned by these reports, and disappointed that the BBC has failed to communicate with us in regard to any such plans, particularly given the details reported in the Guardian[1] of some apparent proposals for other programmes that could include others beyond the Prime Minister and Labour Leader.

In light of these reports we are now seeking legal opinion on the reported proposed format and the possible exclusion of ourselves from the debate.

As we set out in our previous letter, a head-to-head debate between two leaders committed to Brexit would be entirely unacceptable, fail to provide balance and would be a huge disservice to millions of people who voted to remain in the European Union, and the growing number who want a people’s vote on the Brexit deal. It would be extraordinary for a publicly funded broadcaster to consider excluding such a sizeable viewpoint from a prime-time debate.

We are further concerned that any debate would move from the confines of the draft Brexit deal to broader political issues – the future of public services, the impact on the environment – where the Liberal Democrat position on such matters would be entirely unrepresented.

The BBC editorial guidelines state the need to “aim to give due weight and prominence to all the main strands of argument and to all the main parties”. The Ofcom Broadcasting Code emphasises the need for “due impartiality” and “an appropriately wide range of significant views must be included and given due weight” in such proposed programmes. This is something that could not be achieved in a head-to-head debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May without a Liberal Democrat representative.

The Liberal Democrats are advocating a vote on the Brexit deal, with the public being given an option to remain in the EU – a distinctive view that is not represented by either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. This policy was included in our 2017 General Election manifesto, in contrast to other parties.

The distinctive position the Liberal Democrats offer on Brexit must be considered in arranging any forthcoming debate on the Brexit deal, in which we expect to be included.

We look forward to your response on this matter.


* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings