A very significant entry today by Adam Boulton on the Sky News political blog. Apparently Sky have hand delivered invitations to the leaders of the three main UK parties to participate in a debate before the next general election, now less than a year away. The possibility of such a thing happening has been on the cards for some time but Sky have stolen a march on their competition by actually putting the wheels in motion. A huge raspberry from me to the BBC by the way: although the Sky thing has been news all morning the Beeb have made no mention of it on their News website front page or even on their 'politics' page for that matter. This is an example of the BBC's arrogance that I'm afraid is all too common. I should mention as well that Sky are happy to let their rivals run the programme (unedited) on their own channels.
What of the response so far of the three said leaders? As expected both Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg have quickly said "yes" but at the time of writing nothing yet from Gordon Brown. In fairness to Mr Brown he, not before time, has said some more about the release of the convicted Libyan terrorist Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, so it could be argued that he didn't want to get sidetracked into commenting on the Sky invite. One of Brown's big problems (and many have commented on this) is that faced with an awkward question he is nowhere to be seen but failure to respond in the next day or two to whether he appears on the debate will only reinforce the suggestion that he dithers and lacks courage. It sounds as if we will see an empty chair if he fails to turn up - always assuming that he hasn't resigned or been forced out by then!
In this highly visual age Brown has the misfortune to be mediocre in front of the camera - witness his performance on that YouTube video. On the other hand both Cameron and Clegg are much more comfortable in these sort of surroundings and certainly the former can think on his feet in a way that Gordon certainly can't.
I have to say that I'm very pleased to see this move by Sky, it is high time that the electorate had the opportunity to connect with government in a way that has been lacking for many years now. One of my many criticisms of Tony Blair is that at election times it was next to impossible for the ordinary voter to get to ask him a question when he visited somewhere or other - his minders would hand pick his audience so that he wasn't faced with penetrating questions; in other words a total abuse of democracy! Fans of Blair might want to negate my view here, pointing out that he took on a TV audience at the time he was committing this country to the Iraq adventure, credit to him for that, but that situation had a single issue and obviously he could have his various answers well prepared in advance.
Any reservations on my part? The first difficulty is the little matter of finding the right person to chair the debate. Some might suggest Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys as attack dogs who wouldn't let the politicians get away with things but they are wedded to the BBC and I can't imagine that organisation allowing them to do such a thing! Can someone totally neutral then be found who would make sure the party leaders did answer the questions posed. Also there are the minority parties such as UKIP, the Greens and BNP. I can imagine them crying "foul" if they don't get similar air time to put their points across. These last mentioned would I believe have to be in a separate programme because more than three parties at any one time is totally unmanageable if one wants to get in depth answers about policies. It seems that Sky would be happy to host separate programmes for Scotland and Wales (and presumably N Ireland) so that the nationalist parties from each of them could have their say. These doubts in my mind are relatively trivial though and it will be fascinating to see how things pan out.