Once again as election time rolls around speculation begins over whether the main party leaders will hold a head-to-head debate.
Is it in Brown’s interests to try to pull back some of the deficit by taking on the young pretender Cameron on TV? Or is Cameron, lighter on his feet (not to mention his policy), licking his lips at the thought of turning over his older, less TV-friendly rival, just the way JFK did back in 1960 when he and Richard Nixon held the first US TV debates?
Speculation is rife that the parties are considering one or more TV debates, and as ever there will be long argument about how many, what subjects, who chairs it and how few seconds the leaders will have to outline their policies and answer questions.
This idea, of course, comes from America, and those who favour a series of Brown-Cameron face-offs rarely take into account several facts. First, no matter how much policy-obsessive wonks in both the Labour and Conservative parties wish it were so, British politics is not an episode of the West Wing.
Secondly, we need, somehow, to accommodate all those other party leaders – Nick Clegg, sure, but the leaders of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the main Northern Irish nationalist and unionist parties surely deserve some coverage in at least their national constituencies.
But the most obvious reason why we don’t need TV debates is that, unlike the US with its presidential system, we already have the set, the moderator and the rules in place.
That set, often forgotten, is the House of Commons – the cockpit of our democracy, and surely the obvious place for a full-scale debate on the merits of the various parties, without any need for some supposedly impartial journalist to set the questions and then give the leaders no more than a few seconds to answer them.
We already have a moderator – he’s the Speaker, and running a full debate would be a great test of the mettle of the newly elected – yes, Mr Paxman, Mr Dimbleby and Mr Humphrys, to name but three, he’s “elected” – John Bercow.
A full debate in the House of Commons would allow the parties the time to make their points fully and properly. The Commons rules mean that, say, a 20-minute limit on speeches could be applied, with those speaking able to take as many questions from elected – again, that’s “elected” – MPs as they want to.
So why put control of any pre-election debate in any other hands? Why, Parliament, don’t you take control of your own affairs for once. Organise a debate the day before the Prime Minister asks the Queen to dissolve Parliament. Make it a serious, complex, dignified affair rather than a bear-baiting display of some journalist’s manhood as he cuts you off after 15 seconds or 10 words.
Time for the Commons to be creative about its role in the 21st century.