BBC and ITV vie to host leaders' debate

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The three main party leaders agreed yesterday to appear on separate editions of BBC1's Question Time programme to take questions from the audience while ITV and the BBC stepped up the fight to host a televised head-to-head debate between Tony Blair and John Major.

The two channels dispatched detailed proposals to the three main parties yesterday as Channel 4 and BBC2 revealed that they had both signed up the three contenders for Chancellor of the Exchequer. Chancellor Kenneth Clarke will join Labour's Gordon Brown and the Liberal Democrats' Malcolm Bruce in Power and the People, a television discussion on Channel 4 on 27 April. The three have agreed to be questioned on the economy by an audience of 300, selected to represent the British public.

The audience will be given impartial political briefings before being allowed to cross-examine in turn the candidates, and will be quizzed on their voting intentions before and after the politicians' answers.

After Easter, Peter Jay, the BBC's economics editor, will present a debate for BBC2's The Money Programme on 6 April which will also put Mr Clarke, Mr Brown and Mr Bruce head to head.

ITV sent detailed proposals to the parties for a televised debate between their leaders yesterday and insisted that it was still in the running to host the debate. It is understood to be proposing having Mr Major and Mr Blair debating head to head, followed immediately by a contribution from Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown.

However, the BBC has emerged as the frontrunner by proposing three separate debates: Major-Ashdown, Blair-Ashdown and Major-Blair, which Liberal Democrat sources say they will accept.

The BBC also announced that the three leaders would appear separately on a series of Question Time specials hosted by David Dimbleby from 3 April and take questions from the audience. The Scottish and Welsh nationalist party leaders would appear together in a separate programme.

Mr Ashdown said yesterday that 80 per cent of people wanted him to take part in a three-way contest with Mr Blair and Mr Major. He told GMTV it was "arrogant" for the Prime Minister or Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, to decide who would be included in the debate. The Tories have suggested Mr Ashdown should not take part because he has little chance of getting into Downing Street.