Opinion: US-type presidential debates aren't us

If there was one thing that the George Bush campaign team could change it would be having to take part in the presidential debates.

Indeed, no incumbent president, least of all Bush, would want to face his opponent on an equal footing. For this president the debates, so far, have been a disaster. In the first one, it was patently obvious that this was the first time since being elected leader that he has had to face any direct attack or fierce questioning at all. The US presidential press corp is a complete joke and he never faces any opposition like our Prime Minister does in the House of Commons. And boy did his discomfort show.

I've never seen such an open display of scowling. Unfortunately, millions of viewers could see it too. And just in case anyone missed it, within hours of the debate finishing, the Democrats produced a whole video of Bush reactions to being told a few home truths. By the second debate, Bush had learnt his lesson and pretended to listen to his opponent, but now he is being accused of having a listening device stuffed up the back of his shirt.

So why couldn't Bush get out of the debates? The simple fact is that it has become an established part of the campaign and to back out would cost even more votes than an inept performance.

So why can't we have similar debates in Britain? In recent history, the reason has been simple. Tony Blair has bottled it. The great communicator has simply not wanted to risk being torn apart by his opponents, and to be fair, why should he? Popular myth has it that no PM would risk taking part in such an event, but John Major did. When he was miles behind in the polls in 1997 he agreed to a debate and the Labour PR machine spent months trying to wreck the idea. Derry Irvine and others were sent to meetings with the BBC bigwigs with the specific instructions to extend discussion but to ensure no debate took place. It was not difficult to sabotage because, in a multi-party democracy, how do you fit in the minor parties?

Live debates are avoided by sensible politicians at all cost. Just look at how quickly Patricia Hewitt caved in and had to say sorry on Question Time last week. I witnessed Kenneth Clarke being savaged on Tory tax rises in a Granada 500 debate with Gordon Brown in 1997 and thanked God that the audience didn't know what plans we had.

The only way that a debate will happen now is if the two major parties are very close in the polls and both leaders and their PR teams think it's worth taking the risk. But if it is so close no one will want to take that risk.

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