Major dismisses TV joust as `stupid stunt'

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The Independent Online

Chief Political Correspondent

The Prime Minister last night was accused by Labour of "chickening out" of a televised debate against Tony Blair, the Labour leader, after dismissing the idea as a "stupid PR-stunt".

Labour sources said that by dismissing the prospect of a televised debate in the run-up to the election, John Major had also crushed Conservative Party officials who had floated the idea.

In a letter to Mr Major, John Prescott, the Labour Party's deputy leader, said: "After days of dithering ... in effect you have declined your own party's invitation.

"Whether or not the public want a televised debate, they will draw only one conclusion from your decision to get cold feet about your own idea - that you have chickened out."

The Conservative party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, refused to rule out the televised debate at the weekend. Senior Tory Party sources said there were practical difficulties, but it could go ahead if Labour was prepared to field Mr Prescott and other front benchers in other televised debates with Cabinet ministers.

Mr Major was challenged at Prime Minister's Question Time by Kate Hoey, a Labour backbencher, to take up the chance. But Mr Major said it reminded him of the response he got from a Labour politician he had challenged to a debate when he was a young Conservative candidate.

"He told me to go and sort out my policies first and then we'll consider these stupid PR stunts," Mr Major said.

Some senior Tory strategists believed there could be an advantage in having Mr Major go several rounds with Mr Blair on television.

The event would have marked a dramatic shift in British politics towards the style of US presidential elections, where head-to-head television contests are part of the routine of the hustings, and can count heavily in people's perceptions of the party leaders.