One thing we should know: the debates will happen
In one sense, David Cameron and Ed Miliband missed out on an opportunity by declining the invites to what turned into the Clegg-Farage Eurodebates. Not being there will not have helped either of their parties and Cameron in particular could have occupied the popular sceptical middle ground between Clegg’s uncritical Europhilia and Farage’s withdrawalism.
However, that opportunity has to be set against the cost, which would have been establishing a precedent whereby UKIP’s leader debated on equal terms with the leaders of the Lib Dems, Labour and the Conservatives. Once achieved, UKIP would surely keep the pressure up for a repeat run this time next year. The effects of this debate will probably dissipate within days; the precedent, had it been set, would have had much longer-lasting effects.
It’s true that Farage would have an uphill job winning a place next year. Ofcom rightly adjudge which the major parties are according to the type of election as well as each party’s performance. UKIP’s status for the Euro-elections owes more to their vote shares in 2004 and 2009 than their polling over the last two or three years, and just because they’re one of the Big Four this year it doesn’t mean they’ll be granted the same status next year at the general election.
Even so, they’d still reap good publicity if they were believed by the public to be unjustly ejected from the top table having been previously granted access to it. For a party courting the anti-establishment vote, it would play well to their narrative. By contrast, a two-way debate, where Clegg and Farage were seen more as representatives of In and Out than of their parties, isn’t the same kind of thing.
The more important precedent that has been set is that the debates went ahead at all, and were prompted by a relatively minor media player. The same dynamics will apply next year which means we can be almost certain that there’ll be a repeat of 2010 in some shape. Now we know that the broadcasters are prepared to empty-chair (or empty-lectern?) a leader who refuses, none can refuse. Unlike last week, there would be huge benefits to the two or three men who did turn up and endless easy goals to be scored at the expense of their absent opponent(s).
Put simply, if one leader refuses, it almost automatically means the others will accept. Likewise, once two accept, the other(s) will have to follow suit. Much the same applies to the broadcasters themselves.
So where does that leave UKIP? The existing Ofcom rules mean that they won’t be included: they simply don’t have a strong enough record at general elections. That’s only half the story though. On that basis, Ross Perot would have been excluded from the 1992 US presidential debates, when he was polling in the high teens (and had led the polls before his temporary withdrawal from the race), but would have been included in 1996 when his polling was in single figures. Current form matters. If UKIP do win the European elections in May and show strongly in the locals, they may have a case to challenge Ofcom’s stance, in the courts if needs be.
The question is whether UKIP will do that well, because the stakes are far higher than an extra MEP or two; the nature of the 2015 election campaign may be determined by it.