Take the fight out of the House and on to our screens

Tony Blair wants it. The voters deserve it. And now even the Tories may see the wisdom of a live TV debate
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We really shouldn't be shocked that the Queen's Speech debate turned into such an electioneering opportunity yesterday. It's true that the speech and the Royal procession which precedes it is the annual acme of Merrie England. Maybe all that party politics does slightly undermine the heritage value of the ritual. But it's hardly a surprise, given that it's the last one of the Parliament. And at least something happened.

It's not every day you see, as you did yesterday afternoon, the leaders of the two main parties haggling and dealing across the Commons floor about bills for the new session. And after all, normal precedent suggests that this is the last time, apart from the twice-weekly point-scoring game of Prime Minister's Questions, that the voters will have a chance to see Tony Blair and John Major face-to-face before they go to the polls.

But is it? Or could we, at long last, see the two leaders debating with each other on television during the election campaign in six months' time? Peter Mandelson, Labour's election campaign director, evidently thinks it is possible. Last week he slipped away unnoticed at the beginning of the short parliamentary recess and paid a brief visit to the United States . He had a series of meetings fixed up with administration figures in Washington to discuss the fashionable topic of reinventing government. But he also had another, less official, mission, to watch in person the second of the two Clinton-Dole television debates in the Shiley Theatre in San Diego. He talked to Clinton's staff about the awesomely detailed preparations the President had made for them, such as the use of Senator George Mitchell as a surrogate Bob Dole in rehearsals, and around a dozen spin doctors to fan out among the press after the 90-minute debate to explain just what a success it had been for the incumbent. Not to mention Clinton's carefully prepared and lofty response to fend off seriously awkward questions and brickbats about everything from Indonesian donations to the Democrats to Whitewater: "No insult ever created a job or improved a school."

All that preparation, as it happens, may have been part of what has made the two Clinton-Dole events somewhat less memorable than the television debates in some of the nine presidential punch-ups that have gone by since a sweating Richard Nixon slugged it out with Jack Kennedy in 1960. (Radio listeners judged Nixon the victor but those watching on television plumped for Kennedy.) Neither of the candidates dropped a big clanger; connoisseurs love to recall Gerald Ford's whacky remark that Poland wasn't dominated by the Soviet Union, or Jimmy Carter saying that he had asked his daughter Amy what the big issue was in the election - a gaffe that immediately and cruelly spawned thousands of Republican "Ask Amy" lapel badges, or even George Bush looking at his watch during one of the three debates with Clinton in 1992. And they haven't, this year, moved the market. Although, after San Diego, most voters judged Clinton the winner, more than 95 per cent said it would make no difference to how they would vote. But the debates remain the seminal events of US presidential elections.

Whether it happens here, of course, is in the end entirely up to John Major. The decision would be quite a momentous one; no Prime Minister could ever refuse again if Major agreed this time. Paddy Ashdown would certainly have to be accommodated as a participant. Television presenters would kill for the chance of fronting it. But these are hardly obstacles. In Conservative Central Office, the official line is that it's a "distant runner" and that Major certainly isn't in favour of the "cheap exchange of sound bites" which the Tories claim Blair would favour. But there are several reasons why he might not, in the end, hold out against it.

First, Labour will press for it with much more genuine persistence than they ever did during Neil Kinnock's leadership - the call to debate with Margaret Thatcher in 1987 was especially sotto voce. And the harder and more stridently their opponents demand it, the more the Tories inevitably pay a price for refusing.

The second is that Major's highly successful question-and-answer session at the party conference in Bournemouth has convinced at least some of his strategists that he could perform very well indeed, particularly in the kind of "town meeting" setting, similar to the one in San Diego, with a randomly sampled audience of ordinary voters asking questions.

The third is that if Major starts the campaign well behind in the polls then he has very little to lose - and possibly, if Tony Blair should falter, a lot to gain. Yesterday wasn't Major's best day, but you can imagine circumstances in which Major might want a debate more than Blair; and Blair having made the call couldn't possibly refuse.

And the fourth is that surely it's high time it happened. It's extraordinary, when you think about it, that after 36 years of campaign television debates in the US, we still don't have them here. The electors deserve something over and above the carefully arranged early-morning press conferences, armies of spin doctors, stagey national tours and mind-bending party political broadcasts using all the skills of modern television advertising. A studio audience of voters would be nicer and perhaps wiser than the braying backbenchers of yesterday. Why shouldn't the television viewers be able to compare and contrast? And just for good measure why not throw in a deputies' debate with Michael Heseltine and John Prescott. Now, that would be fun.