Labour declares televised leaders' debate to be dead in the water

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All the prospects of holding a televised debate between the party leaders were dashed last night when Labour officially declared that the process was "dead in the water".

Lord Irvine of Lairg, the shadow Lord Chancellor and the Labour Party's negotiator on the format of the debate, says in today's Independent that the talks had made progress last week; the Conservatives were yielding to Labour's demands that there should be a studio audience, and on the need to accommodate the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown.

By Wednesday afternoon, he says, "the discussions were concentrating on the time to be allocated to a three-way leaders' debate and a separate time for a Blair-Major debate. We were well on the way to agreement."

However, all that changed on Thursday morning, when the Conservatives went into reverse and tried to revert to their initial negotiating stance, with no studio audience and Mr Ashdown relegated to an interview at the end of the Major-Blair debate.

Lord Irvine says that nobody should be taken in by the Conservative "misinformation machine". As the Labour Party's sole negotiator, he had negotiated in good faith, "having been told by Tony Blair that he very much wanted the debate to happen. After all, it was Mr Blair who called for it in the first place.

"Unfortunately, any goodwill that existed initially has been destroyed by [the Conservative Party chairman] Dr [Brian] Mawhinney's insults and the Conservatives' inability to negotiate in a reasonable and consistent way. From this, I fear the public are the losers."

Peter Mandelson, Labour's campaign manager, said last night: "The debate is as good as dead in the water. The idea, unfortunately, is going nowhere.

"It required goodwill for it to happen, and we haven't seen that in the last week, and judging by Brian Mawhinney's behaviour, I don't expect to see it in the future."

Lord Irvine of Lairg,

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