Time for a heated, televised debate?

by Stephen Tall on July 29, 2009

De facto Deputy Prime Minister Lord (Peter) Mandelson has hinted that his boss might be ready to debate Nick Clegg and David Cameron in the run-up to the general election. The London Evening Standard has the story:

In an exclusive interview, the Prime Minister’s most powerful ally suggested that Mr Brown would become the first incumbent of No10 to agree to the idea.

“I don’t think Gordon would have a problem with that,” he said. “While Cameron is good with words, he doesn’t have the ideas or policies to back them. I think people would see through the smile.

“The more the public sees of them, the more they’d realise that Gordon is the man with the substance.” …

A TV debate would expose the Tory leader’s weaknesses, he argued. “Cameron lacks substance and he might come across as someone who exudes effortless superiority in public, but loses his rag in private.”

It would be highly risky for Mr Brown to agree. Tony Blair and John Major both refused to give their opponents the chance to score points on live TV. In America, such candidates’ debates are a fixture and President Barack Obama’s strong, calm performance was key to winning the trust of voters.

Nick Clegg’s office has welcomed the idea:

The Liberal Democrats would welcome a televised debate with the other two leaders. Since he became leader Nick Clegg has been taking part in open town hall meetings around the country and we look forward to giving people the chance to see who really has the vision for a fairer country.

“Open debates are good for politics and good for the public. Anything that inspires more people to get out and vote should be encouraged.”

But alas it seems as if Lord Mandelson might have mis-spoken – The Times reports:

WIthin the hour, however, Downing St was throwing cold water on the story. The Prime Minister’s political spokesman insisted that Mr Brown had not dropped his opposition to going to head to head with Mr Cameron during the campaign next year.

So that’s that, then. Perhaps.

For all that liberals might feel uncomfortable with the idea of an increasingly presidential style of government, it does seem wholly archaic that the three main party leaders should not debate with each other during a general election campaign.

I’m not convinced it would excite the public that much, nor that it would increase turn-out. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right and obvious thing to do.