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Why 2010 will see the first TV leaders election debate

By Michael Cockerell

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Why did a debate between John Major and Tony Blair in 1997 never happen?

Lights, camera, election. The first ever leaders TV debates in a British election begin this Thursday. They come nearly half a century after the Labour opposition leader challenged the then Conservative prime minister to a head-to-head.

You'll get a sort of Top of the Pops contest. You'll then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a scriptwriter
Sir Alec Douglas Home

The story of why it has taken so long provides revealing clues to what we can expect when the TV lights finally go up this week with Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg confronting each other in an historic first.

In 1964, Harold Wilson was the thrusting, 40-something Labour leader who challenged the Old Etonian Tory prime minister Sir Alec Douglas Home to an election debate.

Sir Alec turned Wilson down saying: "I'm not particularly attracted by confrontations of personality. If we aren't careful you know you'll get a sort of Top of the Pops contest.

"You'll then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a scriptwriter."

Wilson himself privately admitted: "I was none too keen on the debates. Some small thing might have gone wrong. I might have got hiccups from smoking a dusty pipe."

But like some of his successors, Wilson thought there were election Brownie points to be gained by challenging a prime minister - who could then be accused of chickening out.

John Major
Every party politician that expects to lose tries that trick of debates and every politician who expects to win says no
John Major

Ironically, after Wilson became prime minister he rejected the new Tory Leader, Ted Heath's challenge to election debates.

Wilson's political secretary Lady Falkender later candidly explained to me why: "To appear with Heath on TV would have been giving him a lot of exposure as a potential prime minister and Harold's office would in fact have rubbed off on Heath. Harold decided that was not going to happen."

It was not until 1979 that an incumbent prime minister agreed to debate. Jim Callaghan who was behind in the polls said he was prepared to take on Margaret Thatcher.

She was at first inclined to accept. But her influential image-maker, the late Gordon Reece had other ideas, as Michael Dobbs, one of her advisers told me.

"Gordon realised that there was nothing to be gained by a relatively inexperienced woman going on television against a hugely experienced and avuncular opponent like Jim Callaghan - and particularly when she was pretty well ahead in the polls and expected to win."

Thatcher's refusals

Mrs Thatcher's official refusal said that presidential-style debates were alien to Britain and risked turning the campaign into show business.

She concluded: "We're not electing a president, we're choosing a government."

Mrs Thatcher remained consistent as prime minister.

In 1987 she refused the Labour Leader Neil Kinnock's challenge.

Kinnock told me that he felt it was a shame, as it was something the public would have relished.

FULL GUIDE TO TV DEBATES
Stands for the leaders' debate

"And it would have offered me a degree of catharsis: I enjoy a fight and that would have been a battleground," he said.

Kinnock was also knocked back by the next PM John Major in 1992, who claimed: "Every party politician that expects to lose tries that trick of debates and every politician who expects to win says no."

Ironically it was Major himself who favoured a debate when he was well behind in the polls five years later.

Tony Blair responded to Major's challenge: "Fine: his record against our polices, any place, any time."

'Chickened out'

But it didn't turn out like that. Secret negotiations to fix up the debate broke down amid mutual recriminations with the Labour's campaign director Peter Mandelson claiming the Tories had not been "negotiating seriously or flexibly".

For his part John Major claimed: "Tony Blair challenged me to a debate, to his dismay I accepted and to everyone's amusement he then chickened out."

Lance Price, then a BBC political reporter and subsequently a Labour spin doctor, said: "Labour didn't really want this debate to take place.

"Tony Blair was streets ahead in the opinion polls and when you're out in front why take the risk? Why put yourself through the possibility of something going horribly wrong like that."

It was this reasoning that prevented Blair from agreeing to debates in the subsequent two elections.

Tony Blair on Question Time
In 2005 the party leaders appeared separately on Question Time

As Price, who was in a position to know as Labour's election strategist in 2001, puts it: "The truth of the matter is that we were never up for a debate. But you can't say so publicly. So the question was when and by what means we would find a way of getting out of it'."

In Parliament in 2008, after the US presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain, David Cameron challenged Gordon Brown.

"There is no doubt that one of the reasons the American elections have caught people's imagination is because of the live television debates between the contenders," said Cameron. Didn't the prime minister agree that the time had come for such election debates in Britain?

Brown responded: "In America they do not have Question Time every week where we can examine what the different policies of the different parties are."

It seemed likely that an incumbent prime minister's reluctance to give equal status to his challengers would once again torpedo a leader's election debate.

But then came the surprise return to government of Peter Mandelson, who revealed that Brown might be changing his mind about TV debates.

From the broadcaster's point of view, what we wanted to make sure was that we had a programme that was interesting, watchable and something that people would recognise as a real debate
Sue Inglish, head of BBC political programmes

The PM, who was well behind in the opinion polls, eventually confirmed on camera his decision to take part in three-way election debates with David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

But behind closed doors the hard graft was still to come. At a series of meeting the politicians and the broadcasters hammered out a 76-point programme format agreement.

Questions would be put by a carefully selected audience who would not be allowed to boo or cheer or even to clap, and during the debates the political parties would each have a live hotline to the broadcasters to appeal against what they saw as unfair camera shots or lack of balance.

And unlike on the BBC's Question Time there would be no specific personal questions to individual leaders.

Sue Inglish, the BBC's head of political programmes, chaired the negotiations. I put to her the fear that the 76-point plan might strangle the life out of the debates.

"You were never going to get a free-form programme. I mean this always had to have a structure to it that is unique.

"From the broadcaster's point of view, what we wanted to make sure was that we had a programme that was interesting, watchable and something that people would recognise as a real debate," she said.

We shall see.

Michael Cockerell assesses How to Win the TV Debate on BBC Two at 7pm Monday 12 April, repeated 8.30pm Saturday 17 April 2010 and afterwards on BBC iPlayer.



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