The great debate: Just a Minute v Behaving Badly

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The Independent Online
The news that John Major and Tony Blair may stage a televised public debate has been welcomed by all those who will be out of the country at the time. However, if such a debate does take place, it's very hard to see what the best format would be. There will have to be rules of some kind, otherwise one man will go on talking as long as he can. There will have to be some kind of entertainment factor, otherwise nobody will watch. And there should be some kind of scoring element, otherwise nobody will know who has won.

This rules out the format normally employed by these two, the prime minister's question time format, which produces no entertainment, no winners and, oddly, no answers. A TV debate along those lines would only go like this:-

Blair: May I put it to you that under the Tory government the educational system of this country has gone from bad to worse? Major: I refer my opponent to the reply I gave a few moments ago. Blair: I am afraid that is not good enough. The only original thing this government has done in the field of education is to issue league tables at regular intervals which prove nothing except that some schools tend to be better than others. What they do not show is that we are slipping further and further down the international league table! Major: This comes very well from a party whose educational record when it was in power was appalling. Was it not James Callaghan himself who said ...?

Yes, I think Rule Number One would have to be that neither side could quote past performances, at least not more than five years old. I think an audience would be permissible, as long as the performers were not allowed to make rabble-rousing statements to get automatic applause, in the manner of panellists on Any Questions?. A better format - if we are to have rules and scoring - would be that of Just a Minute, so that proceedings would go something like this:- Chairman: Right, John Major, your turn, so can you speak for 60 seconds without hesitation, deviation or repetition on the subject of education, starting now ... Major: I can safely say that the subject of education is right at the top of the list of priorities of the party of which I am leader, and that my most important pledge is to give every boy and girl the chance to have a schooling which in after life ... Chairman: You buzzed, Tony Blair. What's your challenge? Blair: Deviation. I don't think an education, however good, will be much good in the after- life. Chairman: To be fair, he didn't say "in the after-life", he said "in after-life", which is slightly different. A point to John, who has another 43 seconds. Major: Education is therefore the most vital challenge facing us in the next five years ... Chairman: You buzzed again, Tony Blair. Blair: Yes, I did. He can't make his mind up what his most vital objective is. Sometimes it's education, sometimes health, sometimes law and order, sometimes inflation. Do you think he will ever make his mind up? Major: Well, at least I have a choice of objectives. Tony Blair has only got one, and that is to win power at all cost. (laughter) Chairman: Well, the audience liked that, so a bonus point for John Major, and the subject is still with him. Major: When I was at school ... Chairman: Another buzz from Tony Blair. Blair: Deviation. John Major's school-days have nothing to do with education. On his own admission he only got one or two O-levels. I don't know what he was doing at school, but it wasn't being educated. Major: I got my education in the university of life. Blair: Didn't that used to be the polytechnic of life before the Tories got in?

Maybe that's more like it. Or maybe the encounter should be more ding- dong, more sitcom, a bit like Men Behaving Badly ... Major: What are you up to in the cash box, Tony? Blair: I'm looking for some money. Now that it's going to be my turn to run the flat I'll need some funds, but I can't find any. When you were in charge you always said there was plenty of money. Where is it? Major: We've been having some cash flow problems. Blair: What does that mean? Major: It means, we had some cash, but it flowed. Blair: There should be oodles of it - all those things you've been selling off! - trains, water, arms to Iraq ... Where's the money? Major: I think Ken's got it. Blair: Incidentally, there was a phone call for you. From a girl. Major: Good! Blair: No, it's not. It was from Margaret.

Mmmm. Not sure I've got it right yet. But it's better than the real thing already, I think.

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