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Blair avoiding face-to-face debate

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When Tony Blair visited a South London school earlier in the campaign and was catcalled by some of the children, his entourage explained it away by saying that it wasn't booing at all, it was "booming" -- a particular form of greeting in the local rap-dominated subculture.

I wonder how the spinners will explain away the booing at the end of Blair's appearance on the BBC's Question Time TV program when David Dimbleby asked him why he hadn't been prepared to submit himself to a U.S.-style TV debate with his challengers, Conservative Michael Howard and Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy. A cumulative tummy-rumble from an audience that had to sit well past supper time to hear him? A malfunction in the recording equipment? Or a groan of disappointment that they couldn't spend longer with an adored prime minister?

Blair's lame excuse for avoiding such a debate was that he engages regularly with the others in the House of Commons. That simply doesn't wash. Their exchanges at Prime Minister's Question Time are sharply time-limited and do not permit the serious examination of policy positions.

Politics these days is conducted through the media, especially through television, and British viewers should be able to see their would-be leaders in action against each other over a sustained period. As the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Holme argues, it is wrong that the prime minister of the day should be able to control whether there is such a debate or not -- it is like the captain of one of the teams in a match writing the rules under which the encounter will take place. And with all our politicians bemoaning the low turnout in recent British elections it would be one way of stimulating more national interest and participation.

In their strictly separate encounters with the studio audience, Kennedy was roughed up over his local income tax plans but won points for good humor. Howard was given a hard time on immigration: "Would you, under your immigration plans, let in your own parents," the refugees' son was asked. And Blair fought yet another round under pressure over the Iraq war. But what we needed to see was inter-reaction between them.

In terms of news, the event told us little. But Kennedy did confirm that the Liberal Democrats would not enter a coalition with Blair should there be a hung Parliament and Howard agreed under pressure that he would have backed the war in Iraq even if he had known Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.

That, perhaps, is where Howard gets himself into a tangle on the honesty question. As a party leader accusing his opposite number of "lying" over the way he made the case for war in Iraq, he cannot pretend that he would have opposed the war and commendably does not. But many ordinary voters are not prepared to sit in on a forensic journey through every nook and cranny of the attorney general's case for war in Iraq and the original caveats he applied to that advice. And their reaction tends to be: "If Howard was in favor of the war anyway then why is he making all this fuss about Blair?" The likeliest beneficiaries from the latest furore over the legal advice on the war in Iraq are the Liberal Democrats, because most war opponents have by now clocked that Kennedy's party did oppose the war.

It is getting harder to see many Liberal Democrats who voted Labour for tactical reasons to keep out a Tory continuing that practice this time, and that could help the Conservatives, as Howard's strategists have presumably been advising him. But it is harder still to see Labour voters disillusioned over Iraq switching to the Tories instead.

Many voters are convinced that Blair's case for war was pretty dodgy. They wouldn't buy double glazing from him. Indeed, the latest Yougov poll in the Daily Telegraph finds that 58 per cent believe Blair is telling lies to win the election. But then 51 per cent believe that Howard is telling porkies too. Only Kennedy comes out on the healthy side in that inquiry with only 22 per cent declaring that he is fibbing to help his chances, with 46 per cent saying he is not. There are some advantages in going into an election as the one party pledging to raise tax.

Somehow, somewhere, it just doesn't work for Howard. Out on the streets of Peterborough this week to report how the Toy leader's tough line on stiffening immigration controls was going down, I found , in a strictly unscientific survey, that nine out of ten respondents wanted a tougher line on immigration. Presumably that should help the Tories. But the longer and louder Howard bangs on about immigration the bigger Labour's lead seems to get. And even the Tory lead on 'who has the best policy on asylum and immigration?' is slipping. It must be the way he tells them....

What was noticeable as the latest Iraq row unfolded was the firmness and authority of Gordon Brown beside the prime minister. The decision to go to war, he insisted, was made in "an honest, clear and principled way." The Cabinet, he claimed, had had every chance to question the Attorney General. He not only trusted Blair but respected him for the way he had gone about things. Asked if he would have taken the nation to war in Iraq he simply replied "Yes."

No wonder that as they campaigned jointly together on Friday Blair was rather gushingly referring to his next door neighbor in Downing Street as "our chancellor, my friend and a tremendous asset to this country." Every day through this election campaign Brown's authority is visibly growing, that of the prime minister declining. No wonder he wants to chum up again.


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