Prime Minister John Major will stake his government's future on a series of live, American-style television debates with Labour Party leader Tony Blair. It will be the first time a British prime minister has agreed to a televised confrontation with an opposition leader in a general election campaign.
Amid reports in the British press that Mr. Major would announce today that the election would be held May 1, a Conservative Party official says the TV debates with Mr. Blair will be "the main focus" of Major's bid to win the election.
Major's decision to meet Blair on TV immediately sparked an angry response from the opposition Liberal Democrat Party. Major is insisting that Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown be excluded from the debates. But Charles Kennedy, a senior Liberal Democrat member of Parliament, says his party will go to court to win the right to participate.
With opinion polls running heavily against him, Major has been under mounting pressure from Conservative Party chairman Brian Mawhinney to agree to live debates with Blair.
Until now, Major has argued that American presidential-style TV confrontations were not suited to Britain's political system.
Slipping in polls, Major moves into 'new territory'
Traditionally, British general elections put the focus more on party policies than on leaders. But Mr. Mawhinney has argued for some weeks that Major is the government's best electoral asset and that he would have strong appeal in a debate with Blair.
Yesterday, a National Opinion Poll survey showed Labour 25 points ahead of the Conservatives, up three points from a similar poll last month. Reports yesterday in London's Sunday Times and the News of the World say Major would announce a May 1 general election today.
A spokesman for the prime minister calls the new media reports "pure speculation." The spokesman, however, confirms that Major is ready to debate with Blair on nationwide TV.
Sir Robert Rhodes-James, a constitutional expert and former Conservative member of Parliament, says Major's decision is "historic" and that Mr. Ashdown has no right to a place in the debates. "This is new territory," Sir Robert says. "The key thing is that the prime minister and the leader of Her Majesty's opposition both hold official, salaried positions within the constitution, whereas the ... minority parties have no official positions at all."
A spokesman in Blair's office says Labour would "let the British Broadcasting Corporation decide" who should take part. He adds: "We are pleased that ... the prime minister has finally accepted Labour's challenge to hold a leaders' debate. He has always said he would only do it if he was desperate and clearly that time has come."
Major may seek a 'long' election campaign
Major and Blair are likely to argue about the format. The prime minister wants three live debates of at least an hour each, without an audience but with questions from a panel of journalists. He also wants the leaders to be able to question each other.
A Labour spokesman says that Blair wants only one debate.
Advisers to Major and Blair both claim their man will do well. The closest the British public gets to seeing them in direct confrontation is in their twice-weekly clashes on the floor of the House of Commons, when Blair puts questions to the prime minister, who is expected answer them. Blair, an articulate lawyer, asks sharp questions that Major, a former bank manager, usually attempts to deflect by claiming Labour has been out of office too long (18 years) to command credibility.
An election campaign from mid-March until May 1 would be long by British standards. Normally they last three or four weeks. Major, however, appears convinced that the longer the campaign, the better chance he has of overtaking Labour's lead in polls.
Most news media analysts say Major is taking a risk in agreeing to the head-to-head confrontations. "He has broken one of the first rules of political campaigning," says Richard Brooks, media editor of the London Observer newspaper. "You should never debate with your challenger when you are the incumbent."