Insults continue to fly over television debate

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Labour and the Conservatives continued to trade insults yesterday over the collapse of negotiations on a head-to-head television debate between the party leaders.

After Labour's announcement that the talks were "dead in the water" and its claim that the Tories had scuppered the debate through unreasonable demands, the latter hit back. John Major used his morning press conference to issue a "challenge" to Tony Blair to meet him in a debate. "Turkeys may not vote for Christmas but chickens apparently run away from broadcasts," he said.

Mimicking Labour's campaign slogan, he added: "My message, if I can coin a phrase, is this country does deserve better. It deserves a Labour Party that will discuss the issues and a leader who has the courage to debate them with me on television."

Mr Major claimed the Conservatives had accepted the broadcasters' original proposals, and denied claims that they had tried to avoid having a studio audience. A statement from Central Office added that Labour appeared still to want to negotiate "a proposal for a sofa-session with David Frost - without a studio audience".

Peter Mandelson, Labour's campaign manager, said the Tories had spent two weeks frustrating the talks about a debate. "They are more interested in personal abuse than serious negotiation, as John Major's words illustrated this morning. The truth is, John Major is mired in sleaze. He is using the debate as a desperate attempt to divert attention from the stench of corruption that surrounds his campaign."

He added: "Today, he showed again why people have had enough of him - weak, dithering, indecisive, evasive".

The Liberal Democrat's campaign chairman, Lord Holme, said the spat was just another example of the sort of Punch and Judy politics that his party spent yesterday trying to highlight. "It is difficult to believe that name-calling by the Prime Minister, accusing Mr Blair of being chicken, is the best way to get serious discussions going again on a TV debate," he said.

The Liberal Democrats have repeatedly argued that their leader, Paddy Ashdown, should be included in the debate, but not necessarily given an equal amount of air time.