David Cameron has issued an ultimatum to the broadcasters over the TV debates, saying he will only take part in one contest featuring at least seven party leaders more than a month before the election.
Ruling out a head-to-head debate with Ed Miliband, Downing Street attacked the BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4, accusing them of letting talks over the debates descend into “chaos” .
There has growing anger at the way the broadcasters have handled the negotiations over the debates after they last October issued a press release demanding debates involving Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader.
The Prime Minister subsequently demanded that the Green Party was involved if Mr Farage was to be included.
The broadcasters then said that seven political parties, including Ukip, the Greens, Paid Cymru and the SNP, should be involved in two debates, with a final contest between the Conservative and Labour leaders.
Since then, the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland has demanded to be involved and has now taken legal action.
The Lib Dems were left furious at being given the same weighting as the Greens, Ukip and Plaid Cymru, while Labour was angry about debating against the SNP, which is poised to annihilate Mr Miliband’s party in Scotland.
Making a “final offer” to the broadcasters, Downing Street has now said the Prime Minister is only prepared to take part in 90-minute debate between seven party leaders before March 30, the start of the “short campaign” leading up to the May 7 vote.
In a letter to Sue Inglish, the chair of the broadcasters’ leaders’ debates committee, Craig Oliver, Mr Cameron’s director of communications, said that the behaviour of the television channels has made “progress impossible”.
The letter states: “Despite the Prime Minister having been clear about his concern around holding debates in the short campaign, you did not consult us before issuing a press release last October outlining your plans for three debates during that period.
“Had you consulted us, we could have also told you that we also did not think it was appropriate to exclude the Green Party from the process.
“Despite all of this, we then entered into negotiations in good faith, during which I made the case for a more representative debates structure, including the Greens. It is fair to say that the desire to exclude the Greens was clear from all other parties present.
“Three months later – and again without consultation – you surprised us again by proposing a new seven-party structure, this time not only inviting the Greens, but Plaid Cymru and the SNP as well. Again, this was a flawed proposal – that has resulted in the DUP initiating what appears to be legitimate legal action.
“Since this proposal has been suggested, there has been chaos. In recent weeks, you have avoided letting the parties sit in a room to hammer out proposals, making progress impossible.”
The letter adds: “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.”
The intervention will come as a major blow to the broadcasters and significantly reduces the chances of any debates taking place.
Mr Miliband on Wednesday attempted to call the Prime Minister’s bluff, saying that a head-to-head debate earlier in the campaign would be “fine by me”.
“I will do it anytime, any place, anywhere,” he said in recorded comments before the Downing Street letter was sent.
Labour sources have accused the Tories of doing everything they can behind the scenes to “scupper the negotiations and sink the debates”.
During Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, Labour backbenchers accused Mr Cameron of being “frit”, – Margaret Thatcher’s famous description of Labour MPs she thought were frightened of an election.
Mr Cameron accused Mr Miliband of failing to talk about the economy, jobs, growth or living standards.