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Thursday, 16 November, 2000, 19:45 GMT
Blair and Hague set for TV clash

By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair and William Hague may make history with the first ever US-style TV debate during the next election campaign.

The prime minister's official spokesman Alastair Campbell told political journalists he believed such a face-to-face confrontation was virtually inevitable.

And he said talks were already underway amongst all the relevant parties to agree the ground rules for a clash if the "chemistry" was right.

"My hunch is that, as you go on, then TV debates at some stage will happen. And I think they are a perfectly good thing in principle," he said.

"We are already having discussions with broadcasters about all sorts of proposals," he said.

Televised debates have become a routine part of American election campaigning.

The first saw Richard Nixon facing J F Kennedy in an infamous clash which gave a huge boost to Kennedy's campaign.

Nothing to lose

But British politicians have always fought shy of them.

The traditional view is that only the opposition leader, who has nothing to lose, can gain from such confrontations.

The prime minister, it is argued, should rise above the fray and refuse to expose himself to unnecessary risks.

By engaging in debate with the opposition leader he is conferring a legitimacy on his opponent.

But the prospect has now been raised that Mr Blair may break that rule by agreeing to a face-to-face debate with Mr Hague.

Mr Campbell insisted: "I have to say, if the prime minister did any debate with the leader of the opposition he would win hands down because we have big arguments and it seems to me they haven't."

But many believe such a clash would be an extremely high-risk strategy.

Mr Hague regularly bests the prime minister during question time in the Commons and some Downing Street advisers fear Mr Blair could lose out badly in any televised clash.

What concerns Mr Campbell, however, is that unless a contest is scheduled then the row could dominate the election campaign and overshadow more important issues.

Mr Campbell also suggested that the government spin may become a thing of the past.

He accepted there may have been too much spin in the immediate aftermath of the last election.

And he predicted that, if Labour wins a second term, there would be far less of it.

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See also:

15 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Blair says thank you
25 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Tories call for election debates
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