Benn vs Davis: politics meets the music hall

Public Services Debate, Royal Festival Hall, London

The promise of two men in shirt sleeves arguing about public service for a couple of hours would fill most hearts with horror, but Tony Benn's debate with the Tory frontbencher David Davis filled the Royal Festival Hall with paying punters last night.

It was the party conference fringe for all those who could not spend the past three weeks in draughty halls on the seaside up and down Britain.

The event, the latest in Mr Benn's one-man shows which have toured the country, was part music-hall, part deadly serious discussion; a little like Frank Skinner and David Baddiel without the sofa but with added ideology.

The event pitted a man who has twice tried to lead the Labour Party against a man who has contested the Conservative leadership only once – but may well contest it again.

Mr Benn, pipe in hand, leant back in his armchair and spoke of rights and democracy, public service, and socialism. Mr Davis sipped tea from a giant mug and talked about choice and freedom and how people power could improve services.

Mr Benn, who famously left Parliament to spend more time in politics, is a master of his craft, dropping asides like a comedian who has spent a lifetime working the clubs. ''How could you give a midwife a productivity deal?'' he asked to loud guffaws. "Family planning would destroy the productivity deal.''

One woman asked whether the elderly were making Britain overcrowded. "If you are asking me to make the ultimate sacrifice I must tell you I have a moral objection to euthanasia,'' Mr Benn replied.

Mr Davis, a former SAS reservist who now shadows John Prescott, had the harder edge of a man who has no desire to become a national treasure just yet. He outlined a manifesto under which choice and competition would drive up standards, and gave a personal account of his council house childhood and family stories, which could have been a leadership speech in embryo.

But above all, they agreed. Targets were ridiculous, there were too few police on the beat, and on Europe they simply agreed ... to agree.

In the auditorium they were still queuing up for the microphone when the evening ended; and paying up to £18 a head for the privilege.

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