Major sets terms for TV debate

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The first televised election debate between the party leaders in a British election will go ahead, senior Tory Party sources said last night, in spite of a row over John Major's refusal to appear with Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader.

Mr Major was accused of a "cynical ploy" by Labour and the Liberal Democrats after he announced that he was ready to hold a series of televised debates with Tony Blair, but not Mr Ashdown, during the election campaign in an attempt to break Labour's overwhelming lead in the opinion polls. His refusal to hold a three-way debate threatened to scupper the plan. Mr Major may be told within the next 48 hours to back down or take the blame. But senior Tories were calculating on the broadcasters reaching a compromise to satisfy all sides.

The broadcasters told the Liberal Democrats their legal advisers have warned that if Mr Ashdown was not part of the televised debates, they would be breaking the Representation of the People Act, which requires "due impartiality and fairness" in election broadcasting.

"We don't want this to be seen as the Liberal Democrats calling off a democratic spectacle," a Liberal Democrat spokesman said. "It is Major who is laying down obstacles for the broadcasters. They have told us their legal advice is that we would have to be in it. It looks like Major is happy to debate with Blair but is afraid of debating with Paddy."

Labour and the Liberal Democrats accused the Tories of laying down impossible terms for the debate to prevent it going ahead. Conservative Central Office sources last night confirmed that Mr Major would not go "head to head" in a debate with Mr Ashdown.

Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman, ruled out a Major-Ashdown debate on BBC1's On the Record programme yesterday, saying Mr Major was prepared to have a series of debates, but they would have to be "prime ministerial" debates.

Asked if Mr Major was going to debate with Mr Ashdown, Dr Mawhinney said: "No - we're talking [about] a choice of two futures, not a choice of three futures, and a choice of two possible prime ministers, not a choice of three possible prime ministers. I think the people want to hear, to see, to have the opportunity themselves to judge from the mouths of the two men, one of whom will be leader of this country after the general election."

Labour's campaign manager, Peter Mandelson, said he wanted to see the debates go ahead but did not think they would. Speaking on LWT's Crosstalk programme, he said: "I think the Prime Minister is being typically two- faced about this. He claims he wants a debate but behind the scenes he is putting every obstacle in the way to prevent one happening." He said the Mr major was trying to choose "tame hand-picked" broadcasters to ask the questions.

The Scottish National Party said its leader, Alex Salmond, should be included in any television debate shown in Scotland. And Dafydd Wigley, leader of Plaid Cymru, said there should be "structures" to enable the minor parties to take part.