At every election, the topic arises of a US-style debate between the leaders, and you can’t beat the cut and thrust of a good verbal battle of ideas and propositions.
However debates can be blamed for losing elections but never credited for winning. Nixon’s performance against Kennedy in 1960 and Ford’s Poland gaffe in 1976 are just two examples. For this reason we are, alas, unlikely to ever see them here. It is usually the one who is behind in the polls who is keen for it to happen – hence Labour’s current interest.
For our part, we should not, of course, fear a debate on financial issues. Vince Cable should be able to comfortably wipe the floor with Alastair Darling and George Osborne. It is sad that the most able candidate for Chancellor is the least likely to get it – but such is life. Indeed I myself have been turned down for jobs in favour of less able candidates - some of whom then leave within two years.
At the last election Tony Blair argued that the leaders debate every week in the Commons – but the yah boo session whereby both leaders shout abuse at it other roared on by 300 rabble rousers is hardly the same as a civilised discussion.
Parliament has of course seen many great debaters over the years. Recent examples include Michael Foot, Enoch Powell and Tony Benn. You would take these guys on at your peril. But now leading politicians often avoid a proper debate like the plague.
In Sittingbourne, the Conservative candidate, Gordon Henderson, is a virtual dead-cert to win the seat. Would he have a public debate with the other candidates during the campaign next year? Perhaps not, but I might ask him nearer the time.