Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will go head to head in an historic series of television debates during next year's general election campaign.
The three main political parties announced last night that they had reached a deal over the format of the three encounters, which will be staged by ITV News, Sky News and the BBC. (The order was drawn by ballot.)
The debates between the Prime Minister and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders will each last about 90 minutes and take place before an invited studio audience. Half the time will be spent on a particular theme, with the other half thrown open to general questions.
They will be hosted by the ITV newsreader Alastair Stewart, Sky political editor Adam Boulton and David Dimbleby, the host of BBC1's Question Time.
Mr Cameron said: "It's a step forward for our democracy and I think it's something that, in such a bad year for politics and Parliament, we can proudly celebrate." Mr Clegg added: "These debates will be an opportunity to start re-engaging people with politics. I hope an open, honest and vigorous debate will encourage more people to have their say at the ballot box."
Although televised debates have featured in American presidential contests for nearly 50 years, efforts to bring them to Britain have always foundered.
The risk for political leaders is that a poor performance, or even a solitary ill-worded phrase, can damage their party's whole campaign. Even Tony Blair, an assured television performer, resisted the idea of taking on his opponents before the cameras.
Mr Brown's agreement to appear will viewed as a gamble as he can be a clumsy TV performer, but with Labour lagging behind in the polls, the party will calculate they have nothing to lose from his participation. He will attempt to portray himself as the voice of political experience against two lightweight challengers.
The biggest winner in the debates could be Mr Clegg, whose party tends to gain support during election campaigns because of the extra exposure.
The broadcasters intend to stage separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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