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Leaders prepare for first election TV debate

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 15 April 2010

Tonight's debate between party leaders Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will bring US presidential-style politics to the UK, writes Peter McHugh.

Television debate

Peter McHugh is the former director of programmes at GMTV and was this year awarded the Royal Television Society Lifetime Achievement Award.

Sometime today the leaders of Britain's three main political parties will do what the voters want, shut up and go missing. But they will be back…tonight.

Live from Manchester, straight after Corrie, part one of a prime time April-only series grippingly called "The Leaders' Debates".

It is 50 years since British TV realized the only game show they had not imported from America was "choose your leader". But we will put that right in just a few hours time as the first 90 minute live confrontation between Brown, Cameron and Clegg kicks off at 8.30pm on ITV1.

And like it or not the result will play a massive part in deciding who wins the big prize on 6 May.

Getting here hasn't been easy.

The three host broadcasters - ITV, the BBC and Sky News - spent months in secret meetings at the London headquarters of The Mothers Union (I kid you not) agreeing no less than 76 rules governing the programme format.

Even where the three men stand has been the subject of hours of negotiation. Cameron will take the much fancied middle spot following a deal with Labour which takes account of Brown's limited vision. He is blind in his left eye and will appear on the right of our screens so he can see moderator Alastair Stewart. Clegg will be to the left for this one.

No open necked shirts, dark suited and booted, sensible ties is the order of the day according to those who know.

The rules say no clapping, no heckling by the audience 80 per cent of whom will be chosen to reflect the political balance between the parties.

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But is it important. Well if the USA experience is anything to go then by hell it is.

Shifty, sweating, badly shaven Nixon is reckoned to have lost his presidential bid to Jack Kennedy back in the 1960s. Reagan saw off Jimmy Carter with a rehearsed put down and George Bush senior got caught on camera checking his watch looking bored.

Dan Quayle lost out to George Bush junior by just rolling his eyes!

All of which is why successive British party leaders have spent half a century saying no to television - particularly if they were ahead in the polls.

Which of course is why Gordon became the first to say yes. There is nothing like a 10 per cent deficit in the polls to make you realize the value of a good idea!

So here we are. Gordon, David and Nick are spending all of today rehearsing every one of their off the cuff remarks, sound bites, meaningful stares and, god forgive the prime minister even their smiles.

There will even be jokes. Vince Cable won the battle of the chancellors by making the audience laugh and there are no rules against that. Indeed the experts say he who makes us laugh first wins.

To get ready for the main event the prime minister has Alistair Campbell playing Cameron. Dave has his own Gordon behave-alike and Nick just cannot believe his luck.

The rules say no clapping, no heckling no interrupting. One minute each to answer questions.

Will we learn anything new? Well not if the spin doctors have anything to say about it and they will.

This is not about substance, this is about appearance. We spent years attacking Tony Blair for his presidential not cabinet way of governing. Worry no more. After tonight it will be presidential for all time.

Jon Snow's Snowblog on the leaders' debate
This is not the British way. Ours is not a Presidential system. We consolidate our general election campaign into a presidential one at our peril.

Today there will be no press conferences, no serious opportunity to quiz the big three parties on anything.

Instead the entire thirty six hour build up is devoted to, yes, 'the build up'. Three debates, three two day segments of a three week campaign in which effectively nothing happens, until the American imported 'debate'.

So what should you look out for?

With Gordon it's his temper - can he keep it. The rictus grin - can he hide it. His record - can he avoid it.

For Dave it's his background - can he glottal stop it. His smarminess - can he moderate it. And his kiss curl - can he comb it.

Finally there is Nick. His self righteousness - can he cover it up. His inexperience - can he minimize it. His glee at being there - can he contain it.

Oh and of course there's the content. Tonight's special subject is domestic affairs.

That includes serious man traps for Gordon including immigration, law and order and the catch all subject of trust in politics. Dave could be caught on the NHS, education and political reform. Nick will be laughing all the way to the bank.

But as you settle down to watch tonight remember what to look out for.

It aint what they say, it’s the way that they say it. It ain't what they do, it's the way that they do it. And as the song says…that's what gets results.

But if you do watch then remember when it gets to 10 o'clock it isn't over - in fact it has just begun. The Americans reckon it's the post debate spin doctoring that really counts.

As you bask in the glow of the democratic process remember the ones the politicians really want, the undecided voters, probably didn't even watch.

As the three of them sweat and strain their way through 90 minutes of torture most of the nation will be getting on with their normal lives.

They will be watching Have I Got News for You on BBC1 as they always do on a Thursday night or lapping up How the Other Half Lives on Channel 4.

Or indeed be one of the millions who would rather dine with a donkey than watch politics.

So stand by for the flim flam.

In the left corner back doing what he does best Lord Mandelson. In the right Andy Coulson former editor if the News of the World and Dave's main man. Even the Lib Dems will be having a go. Their job is to persuade journalists and then you that what you thought you had just seen and heard hadn't actually happened.

In fact Gordon/Dave/Nick had been the sharpest, funniest most honest, genuine etc etc etc. So when you read tomorrows papers you will realize you weren't really there.

And remember there are still two more to go!

Peter McHugh is the former director of programmes at GMTV and was this year awarded the Royal Television Society Lifetime Achievement Award.

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