Blair did not 'chicken out'

Negotiations for a TV debate among the party leaders were near agreement when the Tories drew back, says Lord Irvine of Lairg

Share
Related Topics
Last week's negotiations between the broadcasters (the BBC and ITV) and the three main parties, could have yielded a great prize - the first face-to-face debate between the party leaders in a general election campaign. I was Labour's sole negotiator. John Major gave the same role to Michael Dobbs. Lord Holme was Paddy Ashdown's appointee.

The public know, from Tony Blair's recent Parliamentary performances at Question Time and in debates with John Major, that he is much more than a match for the Prime Minister. Still, the precise format of the programme had to be negotiated.

For my part, I wanted two main points agreed. First, a strong involvement for a studio audience with their questions put to the party leaders through the chairman. I even said we would agree to Tory members of the audience questioning Tony Blair and Labour audience members questioning John Major. The broadcasters' original ideas did not include a studio audience. The Tories did not want a studio audience at all. Their aim was an elitist format with questions coming from the chairman and a professional panel of interviewers. I was not in the least surprised that John Major did not want to face the public through a studio audience. By last Wednesday afternoon however, after a further meeting with the BBC, I understood that Mr Dobbs had yielded and agreed a studio audience. So the negotiations seemed to be making real progress.

The second point was a face-to-face encounter among the three party leaders. The BBC's original proposal had been for a two-way debate between Mr Major and Mr Blair, with Mr Ashdown relegated to an interview slot at the end. I held no brief for Paddy Ashdown, but Lord Holme made it absolutely clear that he would not accept that. It would obviously be a breach of the BBC's obligations of impartiality. The audience impact of a debate between the leaders would be much greater than a tame interview of Paddy Ashdown at the end. In the background there was a strong threat of litigation through the courts. That would be an unacceptable distraction from the business of a general election campaign.

By Wednesday afternoon, Mr Dobbs seemed to have yielded on this issue too. Discussions were concentrating on the time to be allocated to a three- way leaders' debate and a separate time for a Blair-Major debate. We were well on the way to an agreement.

But all changed on Thursday morning. The Tories' negotiating position was put into reverse. They were trying to revert closer to the original proposals. I am sure that Mr Dobbs was being instructed from on high that he had conceded too much and had to be tougher.

I therefore imposed a deadline for an agreement to be reached by close of business on Thursday, before the Easter break began. The issue whether the debate would or would not take place was itself becoming a distracting issue. After a week of talks, the time for actually making an agreement had arrived.

I believe that if Mr Dobbs had been in sole charge, the deadline would have concentrated minds wonderfully and there would have been an agreement before Easter. However matters had obviously been taken out of his hands. The negotiations ceased to be confidential. The Tories gave a press conference attacking Labour for imposing a deadline. The next day, Brian Mawhinney, chairman of the Conservative Party, was accusing Tony Blair of being "chicken" and running away from a debate. The Tories must have known that these public statements would be destructive of confidential negotiations.

For Dr Mawhinney to try now to turn the clock back and say that all that is acceptable to the Tories is the broadcasters' original proposals is to try to behave as if the negotiations had not happened. That is utterly unrealistic and the opposite of negotiation.

Nobody should be taken in by the Tory misinformation machine. I was Labour's sole negotiator, not Peter Mandelson or anyone else, and I negotiated in good faith having been told by Tony Blair that he very much wanted the debate to happen. After all, it was Mr Blair who called for it in the first place.

Unfortunately, any goodwill that existed initially has been destroyed by Dr Mawhinney's insults and the Conservatives' inability to negotiate in a reasonable and consistent way. From this, I fear the public are the losers.

Lord Irvine of Lairg is the shadow Lord Chancellor.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Supporters in favour of same-sex marriage pose for a photograph as thousands gather in Dublin Castle  

The lessons we can learn from Ireland's gay marriage referendum

Stefano Hatfield
Immigration enforcement officers lead a Romanian national who has been arrested on immigration offences from a house in Southall in London  

Don’t blame migrants – the West helped to create their plight

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?