Blair throws Major TV gauntlet

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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

A head-to-head televised debate between John Major and Tony Blair was in prospect last night after Brian Mawhinney, the chairman of the Conservative Party, refused to rule out the challenge for the Prime Minister and the Labour leader to face each other in the run-up to the general election.

The event would mark a dramatic shift in British politics towards the style of the United States presidential elections, where such contests are now part of the routine of the hustings, and can count heavily in people's perceptions of the party leaders.

It would be the first time that a prime minister had been prepared to enter a public debate on television with the Leader of the Opposition. Margaret Thatcher refused to join in televised debates with Neil Kinnock on the grounds that it enhanced his esteem. Mr Major has previously brushed Labour calls for debates aside with contempt, branding them a game for losers.

But Tory strategists believe there could be a clear advantage in a contest. Mr Major led his party in the opinion polls at the last election by several points, and the party is certain to exploit his personal appeal.

The Tories also have a trick up their sleeves, if they agree to the match. They are likely to say they will go ahead, providing Labour puts up other frontbenchers in similar debates.

The Tories want to see: John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader against Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister; Margaret Beckett, Labour's spokeswoman on trade and industry, against Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade; and Harriet Harman, Labour's health spokeswoman, against the Secretary of State Stephen Dorrell.

Mr Blair yesterday seized on the idea, which emerged in informal contacts between the television producers and Conservative Central Office aides. The Labour leader said he would be "delighted" to accept the challenge.

"I am taking this more or less as a firm offer, in which case it is accepted with alacrity," he said on BBC1's Breakfast With Frost programme.

"If they want to have a debate there is a very simple way of having it, which is to bring forward the date of the general election.

"I don't believe there is any purpose or reason in governing left for this government. They are weak, they are incompetent, they are drifting. They have given no direction to the country whatsoever and if they want to put this to the test they should put it to the test sooner rather than later."

Meanwhile, an April Fool's prank by the Labour Party was expected to enrage Tory leaders at Conservative Central Office today. A spoof advertisement was placed in a national newspaper urging readers to telephone the Tory headquarters in Smith Square to claim a pounds 2,030 refund in backdated tax relief.