Tories and Labour clash again over TV debate


THE BRITISH Labour Party appeared to be rapidly losing enthusiasm for a televised debate between the Prime Minister, Mr John Major and its leader, Mr Tony Blair, yesterday after the Tories announced that they had accepted the "fundamental principles" of the suggested format.

Amid claims that the Labour party are "deliberately throwing up unreasonable obstacles", the Tory Party chairman, Dr Brian Mawhinney, accused Mr Blair of being afraid of "cracking" during tough questioning and said he believed there was now "no reason" why the debate could not go ahead unless Mr Blair "chickened out".

After stating that the Tories had in principle accepted the proposals from the BBC and ITV, which would involve the Liberal Democrat leader, Mr Paddy Ashdown, but not in a three way debate, Dr Mawhinney said the suggestion that Mr Major was raising objections to the debate was "nothing more than a fabrication, being raised by Labour as another smear to deflect from the real issues involved

However Labour's campaign manager, Mr Peter Mandelson, denied that his party was creating obstacles. He insisted that the debate must involve all three party leaders and take questions from a studio audience, a proposal rejected by both BBC and ITV.

"As everyone knows," he said, "while Mr Major continues to bar the Liberal Democrat leader from playing a full role, the debate would not be lawful. Mr Major is being petty and small minded about this. He should back down to allow the debate to go ahead with a studio audience putting questions directly to the three party leaders," he added.

The Liberal Democrats campaign manager, Lord Holme, repeated their threat of legal action if Mr Ashdown does not participate in the debate. "It is not for Dr Mawhinney, before discussions have even begun, to dictate unilaterally the terms of the debate," he said.

Despite the Tories' concerted attempts to stem the row over the cash for questions affair, allegations of sleaze continued to dominate the election campaign. One Tory MP, Mr Richard Shepherd actually backed Labour's demands for the recall of parliament to consider the official report into thee matter.

Mr Shepherd told GMTV's Sunday programme that Parliament should be recalled for just one day to consider Sir Gordon Downey's full report. "Where there's a will there's a way," he said.

"I am sure the Prime Minister does not want his campaign, to be bogged down" in the torrent of abuse that's now heaped on him personally, but on the whole system as well. I think this should be nipped in the bud straight away. This issue is deeper than party politics," he said.

However the deputy Prime Minister, Mr Michael Heseltine, accused the Labour Party of deliberately "exploiting" the affair to overshadow the announcement of the latest economic figures. "You get Labour in the gutter of politics, but the Government delivering excellent economic results," he declared.

In the midst of the politicians' familiar mutual slugging (the Home Secretary, Mr Michael Howard, and his opposition counterpart, Mr Jack Straw, seemed within millimetres of blows on one British discussion programme), polls suggested the British public was largely unmoved by the first week of the campaign.

A Gallup poll for the Sunday Telegraph showed voting intentions were unaffected by the start of Britain's longest election campaign in 80 years, with support for the parties barely changed since the beginning of the month. Labour's lead remained a huge 25.5 points enough to give the party a landslide majority after 18 years out of power.