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
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.