Still mass debating the debates.
Rather than adapt their bids accordingly, they walked straight into Craig Oliver's trap. Dave debate with Nige? Not without Natalie there to snipe at Ed and Nick from their blind sides. Instead of saying OK and calling his bluff, they came up with the completely ridiculous and unwieldy idea of also inviting Plaid Cymru and the SNP, and to two rather than just one of the showdowns. Why then not invite the DUP as well, or Sinn Fein, the Natural Law party, the Pirates, the Real Elvis continuity wing? There didn't seem to have been the slightest thought put into how a 7-leader debate could possibly work, presumably because they were expecting Miliband and Clegg to now say hang on, this is becoming a joke.
Only they didn't, apparently believing the pressure on Cameron to take part would become too much. It hasn't, as was predictable considering there isn't as much demand for the debates as the broadcasters, heady from the belief the debates were the campaign last time, and the other parties have convinced themselves. Then you also have to factor in the lack of pressure from the press, both as they have an interest in not helping out the broadcasters and as most have already dismissed Miliband as only slightly less weird than Arnold Layne, making anything that could prove them wrong extremely unwelcome. If it was Miliband refusing to be involved you can imagine the uproar, the jibes, taunts, the multiple interns in chicken suits that would be following him around everywhere. As it's Cameron he'll raise the ire only of the Daily Mirror, and their stock isn't exactly high at the moment.
Now we have Oliver and Cameron's "final" offer, and it's playing the broadcasters at their own game. You wanted 7 leaders, you've got it, but we're only doing one and before the campaign proper gets under way. As contemptible as this is for all the reasons the other politicians have spent the day outlining, you also can't help but admire the way it's been done. It's been Campbell-esque in its evil genius, which is no doubt why it's annoyed the man himself so much. Having a debate before the Conservative manifesto has been published is all but pointless, as Paddy Ashdown pointed out, as is one when the very presence of at least two of the leaders is completely irrelevant to most of those watching as they can't vote for the SNP or Plaid Cymru whether they like the sound of their policies or not. Even if answers to questions were limited to two minutes, that's nearly quarter of an hour that's going to be spent on just each leader's opening gambit. No wonder Cameron thinks he'd escape completely unscathed from such an encounter.
And so we are once again left with the broadcasters threatening to "empty chair" Cameron. Only because of the impartiality rules the Conservative policy would have to be outlined regardless, quite possibly by a journalist, making the spectacle even more ludicrous, and leaving the one-on-one debate with Miliband presumably transformed into either a long-form interview with Paxman or a town hall style non-event. The question is who comes out of such silliness looking worse, and Cameron will quite happily take a few negatives headlines rather than risk Miliband appearing prime ministerial a week before voting. Channel 4 and Sky offering to move that debate forward yesterday was all the encouragement Cameron and Oliver needed to make a final mockery of the "negotiations". What a mess, and for all the cowardice, cynicism and calculation of the Conservatives, the incompetence of the broadcasters has been just as remarkable.