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The BBC's Jon Brain
"The opposition parties claim the Prime Minister is running scared"
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Thursday, 18 January, 2001, 11:33 GMT
Blair's 'blue funk' over TV debate
Tony Blair
Tony Blair turns down TV debate
Tony Blair's decision not to take part in televised election debates with the other main party leaders has been staunchly defended by senior Labour figures.

The prime minister was accused of political cowardice following Wednesday's announcement that he would not take part in the proposed TV debates.

We want the next election to be about the issues that are really important to the British people

Margaret Beckett
But Leader of the Commons, Margaret Beckett said Mr Blair had nothing to fear from Conservative leader William Hague.

She told the BBC: "We want the next election to be about the issues that are really important to the British people - issues like jobs, education and the health service and so on."

Mrs Beckett said the problem with the proposed TV debates was that they were "geared to an American-style election" and would focus attention on the individuals rather than the political parties.

Tory chairman Michael Ancram dismissed Mr Blair's decision not participate in the joint BBC and ITV plan for two debates involving the three main party leaders because he was in a "blue funk".

'Caught in a corner'

He said: "Two weeks ago Tony Blair was telling us he was in favour of these debates in principle.

"I think he was at that time, because we had put forward alternative proposals we might turn down the BBC and ITV's offer."

He said the prime minister had been "caught in a corner".

"We have said yes, (Liberal Democrat leader Charles) Kennedy has said yes, BBC and ITV said yes and he eventually had to admit he was frightened and say no."

He is willing to debate with other party leaders every Wednesday afternoon but does not seem to fancy his chances without 400 cheerleaders sitting on the green benches behind him

Charles Kennedy
Earlier, Mr Hague said Mr Blair's stance showed the prime minister was "a real chicken" who did not dare face the debate "because he knows that without his spin doctors he'd lose".

The news of Mr Blair's refusal to take part in the debate came in a letter to broadcasters from the Labour Party's head of communications, Lance Price.

In it Mr Price said: "We do not believe that TV debates between the leaders will significantly add to the public's interest in or understanding of the issues and indeed we fear that the media's focus on process not policy may lead such debates to have the opposite effect of that intended."

The debate would have seen the leaders sharing a TV platform for the first time in a British election campaign.

Last year Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's official spokesman, raised expectations when he told journalists that debates such as those proposed "at some stage will happen".

Empty chair

He said such debates were a "perfectly good thing in principle" and acknowledged that he was in discussion with broadcasters on various proposals.

But sceptics were quick to point out early on that Mr Blair - enjoying a clear opinion poll lead over Mr Hague - would most likely say no.

Nothing came of similar calls by Labour for a TV debate during the 1997 election between the then prime minister, John Major and Mr Blair as the then leader of the opposition.

Mr Blair does not have to call a general election until May 2002 but it is widely predicted he will go to the polls this May.

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See also:

17 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Blair ducks TV debate
14 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Hague's TV challenge to Blair
16 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Blair and Hague set for TV clash
23 Nov 00 | UK Politics
TV challenge for party leaders
16 Jan 01 | UK Politics
TV debate pressure 'on Blair'
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