Will he or won't he? The BBC is suggesting that Gordon Brown may announce today in his conference speech that he will go head-to-head with the leaders of the other two main parties in a series of television debates.
Normally politicians will jump at the chance to air their opinions on prime time television. But the regular election-time challenge to the Prime Minister by Opposition leaders is a notable exception.
The UK has never held an American-style TV debate between party leaders, which is a shame because it might give us some golden moments like Gerald Ford getting into a muddle about what was and was not a Warsaw Pact country, Ronald Reagan's devastating: ‘There you go again’ to Jimmy Carter or even the 1988 vice-presidential debate when Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle: “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Blair’s challenge to Major in 1997 never materialised after extensive negotiations broke down. As Prime Minister he then rejected calls from Hague and Howard. It would normally seem unlikely that Brown would respond positively to the invitations from Cameron and Clegg.
And there is a good reason. When I was working as part of John Major’s campaign team in the 1995 Tory Party leadership election, John Redwood also challenged the Prime Minister to a debate. I still have a copy of the letter that the Tory leader sent in reply. Major referred to a time when he was seeking election to a council seat in Brixton, South London. He himself had challenged the incumbent to a head to head debate. “I forget what he said exactly” Major wrote, “but the gist of his reply was ‘nice try, but no thanks’”. The same went for Redwood.
Such a dismissive approach is the one which Brown would perhaps be expected to take to Cameron and Clegg. As each of the party leaders knows, appearing on the same platform makes them look like equals – and so it is the one who holds the higher office who usually has the most to lose. If Labour were not trailing so dismally in the polls, Brown would be extremely reluctant to forfeit the authority that his status gives him and allow the public to visualise Cameron in his position.
Battles for authority are of course nothing new. The theologian Ched Myers interprets the Gospel account of Jesus’ encounter with a demon at the synagogue at Capernaum in such terms. This was the seat of local power, Myers points out. It was a political as well as religious context. The demon manifests, we are told, because the authority of the scribes is called into question.
The demon’s tactic is to belittle his opponent. He calls him “Jesus of Nazareth”. As Myers points out, this is an attempt to ridicule Jesus and cut him down to size. Nazareth is, after all, a running joke. It’s a bit of an embarrassment. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asked Philip. In a similar vein to the yah-boo-sucks politics of Prime Minister’s Questions, the demon is trying to undermine Jesus’ credibility and win the authority back.
But the consistent biblical message, from Elijah’s invitation to the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel to pour water on his sacrifice, to Jesus’ silence in his head to head with Pilate, is that true authority does not come from political advantage or status. It comes from doing the right thing. And in that respect at least, Brown has a lot to gain from breaking with the cowardice of former party leaders and engaging in a fair and open debate with his rivals - even if his motivation is one of self-preservation.