Brinkmanship puts TV debate on hold

Click to follow
Talks over the televised debate between John Major and Tony Blair broke down last night amid recriminations over who was to blame for ending negotiations.

Labour accused the Tories of "negotiating in bad faith" and called an end to the first round of talks. With both sides still wanting the debate, it was hanging in the balance, but the Tory and Labour campaign leaders said it was looking less likely to go ahead. Labour sources accused the Tories of raising the issue to deflect attention from the sleaze debacle. "They don't want the television debate. They want the story of the television debate. This is another attempt at a diversion," said Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's press secretary.

"The next time the press get another story, the Tories will call another briefing to complain about the colour of the carpets and the sofa. Our strong sense is they don't want a debate. As far as we are concerned, the negotiations are finished."

It had been hoped to clear up the negotiations by Easter to avoid next week being overshadowed by possible court challenges by other parties, Mr Campbell said. The Scottish National Party yesterday lost its appeal for an injunction to stop the debate being broadcast in Scotland without their convener, Alex Salmond, but he vowed to fight on.

Mr Campbell left the door open to more talks on other proposals, including a bid by Sir David Frost. "The basis of our strategy is that the more the public see of Tony and the more they see of Major the better. That is borne out by our polling."

Tory strategists were against the television debate, but with their poll showing staying low, they thought it could help them close the gap with Labour.

Labour's statement came after Michael Dobbs, the Tories' chief negotiator, accused the party of threatening to "pull the plug" on the debate by fixing a deadline for the talks to end by midnight last night. Mr Dobbs accused Mr Blair of reneging on his offer to "go head-to-head" with Mr Major any time, anywhere. "Time is running out. Labour are planning to pull the plug ... We want discussions to continue, in the belief that what the broadcasters are proposing is genuine and responsible," Mr Dobbs said.

"Although Mr Blair has been calling for a debate for more than a year and discussions have been going on for only days, Labour are trying to impose a deadline of tonight for conclusion of those negotiations or scrap the idea altogether."

The BBC and ITV companies proposed two 90-minute programmes and the Tories initially said they favoured the ITV bid because it was more open to proper debate. But they said last night they would also accept a revised BBC bid.

Mr Dobbs said Labour had proposed a programme lasting an hour without any cross-questioning. "That is not debate - it is a swamp of soundbites," said Mr Dobbs, who accused Labour of using "bizarre excuses" to wreck the talks.

Mr Campbell said Labour had proposed three debates, including a 90- minute one, with the two leaders being questioned by opposing party supporters. "Each time the Tories moved the goalposts," he said.

Doubts over the programme going ahead also remain over arrangements for Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader. Mr Dobbs confirmed the Conservatives are refusing to allow him equal status with the Mr Major. The Liberal Democrats joined Labour in blaming the Tories for putting up obstacles. Lord Holme, their negotiator, accused the Tories of shedding "crocodile tears".