Going live: party leaders prepare to make TV history

Brown, Cameron and Clegg do battle before the nation this week. Michael Cockerell on a spectacle that's been 46 years in the making
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Lights, camera, election! The first leaders' television debates in British electoral history begin this Thursday, nearly half a century after they were first proposed.

Final agreement was reached only last month on the format of the three 90-minute live programmes. There have been a series of secret meetings between the broadcasters and the political parties since the autumn to thrash out the rules, with the parties aware that the debates could be crucial in influencing the outcome of the election.

The meetings took place in the Westminster HQ of the Mothers' Union – a convenient though unlikely location especially for the Tories' representative, Andy Coulson, who is David Cameron's spin doctor and a former editor of the News of the World.

The story of why it has taken so long for leaders' debates to come to Britain, when they have become the norm in every other democracy, provide revealing clues to what we can expect when the lights finally go up.

It was the thrusting, forty-something opposition leader who first challenged an incumbent Prime Minister to a head-to-head. Labour's Harold Wilson had been inspired by the iconic Kennedy-Nixon confrontations in the US and called for TV debates in the 1964 election in the UK.

The Old Etonian Tory Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, turned Mr Wilson down flat: "I'm not particularly attracted by confrontations of personality," he said. "If we aren't careful, you'll get a sort of Top of the Pops contest. You'll then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a scriptwriter."

Wilson himself privately admitted: "I was none-to-keen on the debates. Some small thing might have gone wrong. I might have got hiccups from smoking a dusty pipe." But Mr Wilson thought there were election Brownie points to be gained from challenging a prime minister to debate who could then be accused of chickening out.

Ironically, after Mr Wilson became prime minister, he rejected a similar challenge from Ted Heath, the Tory leader in 1970. Mr Wilson's political secretary, Baroness Falkender, later candidly explained to me why: "To appear with Heath on TV would have been giving him a lot of exposure as a potential prime minister and Harold's office would in fact have rubbed off on Heath. Harold decided that was not going to happen."

Only in 1979 did an incumbent agree to a debate, when Jim Callaghan challenged Margaret Thatcher. She was at first inclined to accept. But the late Gordon Reece, her influential image-maker, had other ideas. "Gordon realised that there was nothing to be gained by a relatively inexperienced woman going on television against a hugely experienced and avuncular opponent like Jim Callaghan, particularly when Margaret was pretty well ahead in the polls and expected to win," says Mrs Thatcher's former adviser, Michael Dobbs. Mrs Thatcher official refusal said that presidential-style debates were alien to Britain and risked turning the campaign into showbusiness. She concluded: "We're not electing a president, we're choosing a government."

She refused Neil Kinnock's 1987 challenge to election debates, which is something Lord Kinnock regrets to this day. "The opportunity to confront Margaret Thatcher would have intrigued and attracted the electorate and offered me a degree of catharsis. I enjoy a fight and there were arguments to be made to her – between the eyes." He was also knocked back by John Major in 1992, who claimed: "Every party politician that expects to lose tries that trick of debates and every politician who expects to win says no."

As if to prove the point, Mr Major favoured a debate when he was behind in the polls in 1997. Tony Blair responded to Major's challenge: "Fine: his record against our polices, any place, any time." But negotiations to fix up the debate broke down amid recriminations. John Major said: "Tony Blair challenged me to a debate. To his dismay I accepted and to everyone's amusement he then chickened out."

Lance Price, then a BBC political reporter and subsequently a senior Labour spin doctor, says: "Labour didn't really want the debate to take place. Tony Blair was streets ahead in the opinion polls and when you're out in front, why take the risk?"

This reasoning prevented Blair from agreeing to debates in the subsequent two elections. As Price puts it: "The truth of the matter is that we were never up for a debate. But you can't say so publicly. So the question was when and by what means we would find a way of getting out of it."

Once Mr Blair had moved on, David Cameron challenged Gordon Brown to a head-to-head, praying in aid the US presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain. "There is no doubt that one of the reasons the American elections have caught people's imagination is because of the live television debates between the contenders," said Mr Cameron in the Commons. Brown responded: "In America they do not have Question Time every week where we can examine what the different policies of the different parties are." It seemed likely that an incumbent prime minister's reluctance to give equal status to his challengers would once again torpedo a leaders' election debate.

But then came the return to government of Peter Mandelson, who was to reveal that Mr Brown might change his mind. He was behind in the opinion polls and eventually confirmed on camera his decision to take part in three-way election debates with David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

But behind closed doors, the hard graft was still to come to agree a format. The three parties' media chiefs met regularly over nearly six months with the broadcasters from the BBC, ITV and Sky. To keep their negotiations secret, the meetings would begin with each person solemnly confirming they had not breathed a word of the negotiations to the press.

Each of the parties began with their own supposedly non-negotiable bottom lines – known as their "die-in-the-ditch" positions. But eventually compromises were reached in a 76-point debate format agreement.

Questions would be put by a carefully selected audience, who would not be allowed to boo or cheer or even to clap. During the debates the political parties would each have a live hotline to the broadcasters to appeal against what they saw as unfair camera shots or lack of balance. And unlike on BBC One's Question Time, there would be no specific personal questions to individual leaders.

Sue Inglish, the BBC's head of political programmes, chaired the negotiations. I put to her the fear that 76-point plan might strangle the debates. "You were never going to get a free-form programme," she said. "This always had to have a structure that is unique. We wanted to make sure we had a programme that was interesting, watchable and something that people would recognise as a real debate."

We shall see. The hope is the live debates will bring the election campaign to life and provide a genuine insight into the character and policies of the would-be prime ministers.

The fear is that they will be stuffed with pre-digested soundbites and over-afraid of putting a foot wrong. But from this week the three debate stages will become what former US President George Bush senior called "tension city".

Michael Cockerell's documentary "How to Win the Debate", produced by James Giles, is on BBC Two at 7pm.