Election '97: Discord among Three 'Leaders'

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The Independent Online
Standing at lecterns like the Three Tenors, the Three Chancellors gave a full dress-rehearsal last night for the first television debate by the Three Leaders, if it ever goes ahead.

The show on BBC2 highlighted the difficulties within the first few minutes, as the chairman, Peter Jay, repeatedly intervened to allow the Liberal Democrats' Malcolm Bruce to be heard. It was like the conductor stopping the music in mid-aria for Jose Carreras, because he could not get a word in edgeways between Gordon Brown's Placido Domingo and Kenneth Clarke's Luciano Pavarotti.

The invited audience appeared to be on Mr Bruce's side, giving him more applause than the two main turns. There was also the flash of competition, which the great tenors cannot hide, when Mr Clarke accused Mr Brown of playing to the gallery for cheap applause.

It was watched closely by the spin-doctors, because the format was the same as that suggested by the BBC for the great leadership debate, before Labour pulled the plug on the talks. The spin-doctors came to the conclusion they were right to say "no". "It's just not working," one adviser said, as the debate was interrupted yet again.

An ITV programme hosted by Jonathan Dimbleby between the "three Foreign Secretaries", Malcolm Rifkind, Robin Cook, and Menzies Campbell, flowed more freely. But the formalities of the questions put by Mr Jay never allowed the three Chancellors to be tested off their scripts. In a reversal of traditional roles, Mr Brown challenged the Tory Chancellor on where he was going to get the money to finance the tax breaks for the family. Mr Clarke said: "We will fund the change ... as we get the improved finances, as I financed 1p off taxes." Then he hit back: "All your people say there will be pounds 2.5bn for council house building a year ... How are you going to pay for that?"

Neither Mr Clarke nor Mr Brown would agree with Mr Jay that whoever is returned to No 11 Downing Street on 2 May will have to put up taxes to fund their spending programmes. Which leaves only one option - they may have to privatise programmes like this. The Three Tenors did it. Why can't they?