Box beckons for sweet talkers

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The Independent Online
The prospect of a television-led election, dominated by head-to-head debates between leading politicians, including John Major and Tony Blair, is being talked up by Tory sources at Westminster.

One Cabinet source said he looked forward with ''relish'' to a clash of the leaders, but also to live debates between ministers and their Labour shadows: with Michael Heseltine pitted against John Prescott; Kenneth Clarke up against Gordon Brown and Malcolm Rifkind versus Robin Cook. Mr Blair has indicated that he would debate with Mr Major in any setting. Close colleagues of the Prime Minister say that, given the polls, he now has nothing to lose by picking up the Labour leader's gauntlet.

One broadcaster said yesterday that the man with the biggest problem could be Mr Blair. "Being so far ahead in the polls, would he want to risk it?" he asked.

That point was underlined by today's first pre-election Harris poll for The Independent: it gives Labour a 21-point lead over the Conservatives. The lead is bolstered by the finding that 62 per cent of Labour voters say they will "certainly" vote Labour, while only 50 per cent of those who intend to vote Tory say they will certainly do so.

But head-to-head debates can be volatile. Harold Wilson said after his debate challenge had been rejected by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the incumbent Prime Minister, in 1964, that he had been glad because a fit of hiccups could have lost it for him.

The Conservatives will insist on a strong invigilator, and, if there is an audience or questions from viewers and listeners, careful vetting of participants. Mr Major said in an interview on BBC television's Newsnight on Wednesday that he anticipated fighting a high-profile "personal" campaign on the policy divide between the contenders.

But Tory sources believe the depth and breadth of Mr Major's knowledge would "shine through" in televised confrontations with the "very inexperienced" Mr Blair and Mr Ashdown.

The most significant question that remains to be settled is broadcasting "balance", and the requirement to provide Mr Ashdown with a role in the debate.