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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Not the West Wing

Hopes that the run-up to the General Election might see a series of debates between the three main party leaders have run into the mire as Labour and the Conservatives pursue their own agenda as to what they want to use the discussions for.

The Sunday Telegraph reports that after only a few weeks of negotiations, David Cameron has rejected the idea of a series of debates between all three party leaders. Gordon Brown has proposed up to six debates while the Liberal Democrats are demanding three three-way debates:

Mr Cameron has proposed the most slimline option, involving one debate with all three leaders. But Mr Brown has told broadcasters he wants at least six. He and Mr Cameron would go head to head in one, Mr Brown would face Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, in another while Mr Cameron would face Mr Clegg in a third. Then there would be three more debates between Mr Brown and Mr Cameron focused on a different issue each time, such as the economy.

In addition, both Labour and the Lib Dems are pressing for a separate debate between the Chancellor Alistair Darling, the shadow chancellor George Osborne and the Lib Dem treasury spokesman Vince Cable, as well as a foreign policy debate between the Foreign Secretary and opposition foreign affairs spokesman.

One broadcaster involved in the negotiations described the situation as "madness".

"The detail is bringing it down. The danger is it will continue getting bogged down and at this rate may never happen."

The insider said the situation was so bad that at least one television company had proposed that the debate take place in the next few weeks as a way of ensuring it went ahead.

If this 'insider' thought these negotiations were going to be easy then he is being very naive indeed. There is no tradition of leadership debates in the UK, because we do not operate a Presidential system. That does not mean that such debates are not desirable, just that somehow those organising them are going to have to break through self-interest to get them off the ground.

This is not America, but even there there are negotiation stalemates and game playing in setting the terms of the debates. That was so even on The West Wing. The difference in the USA is that people expect the debates to take place so there is a moral imperative to reach an agreement. Whether that is so here we will have to see.
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