Major and Blair poised for head-to-head debate on TV

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The Independent Online
A Television debate between John Major and Tony Blair looks likelier than ever this weekend, with the Prime Minister laying down a new set of terms for broadcasters who want to screen the programme.

The move, which coincided with last week's crushing defeat in the Wirral South by-election comes amid private pressure on Mr Major from fellow ministers to participate. They argue he has nothing to lose.

Mr Major's demands include the exclusion of Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader. Mr Major's advisers fear a tri-partite debate could tempt the other two leaders into ganging up against the Premier.

The Major camp also argues that the Prime Minister's preference is for a debate without members of the public, because Conservatives are believed to be less voluble in studio audiences than Labour supporters.

Mr Major's choice is to have questions set by two commentators; David Dimbleby is thought likely to be one of them, if the BBC wins the right to screen a debate.

Although the BBC's formal response is that it has no indication that the Prime Minister has agreed to participate, corporation sources say that the proposal for a debate is gaining ground. "It's been moved up the agenda in the last week or so," one said.

"The Prime Minister thinks that as he is Prime Minister he should not put himself on a level playing field with the others. But his advisors are saying, 'You're behind. If Labour do a debate, then all they can do is lose it'. So they are leaning towards it."

Labour, which says its leader will debate with Mr Major "any time, any place in any format" accuses the Prime Minister of "running scared".

The sticking point is the Prime Minister's attitude towards Mr Ashdown, which could create a legal minefield for the broadcasters who could find themselves in court if they screen a programme without him.

Liberal Democrat legal opinion is that this would break the law, or television companies' own statutes, regarding equal treatment of political parties.

One ally of Mr Major said: "One of two people is going to be Prime Minister after the next election. Paddy Ashdown is not either of them, so why should John Major debate with him?"

That leaves open the possibility either of a debate before the campaign begins, when election law does not apply, or a new formulation under which Mr Ashdown is offered a reduced role.

Alternatively a broadcaster might decide to go ahead with a Major-Blair head-to-head, and brave the legal consequences.

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