London (CNSNews.com) - British Conservative leader William Hague has challenged Prime Minister Tony Blair to an American-style live televised debate ahead of the next general election, expected next spring or autumn.
He issued the challenge during a question and answer session at his party's annual conference in Bournemouth, on the day U.S. presidential contenders Governor George W. Bush and Vice-President Al Gore make final preparations for their crucial first head-to-head debate.
"Tonight in the United States, George Bush and Al Gore will be having a televised debate in front of the American people. I believe in other democracies there should be televised debates at election time," Hague said.
"We believe that if there can be a debate between Bush and Gore, at the next election there should be a live, televised debate or series of debates, with no advisers, no spin doctors, between Hague and Blair.
"Let's make that challenge," he added, to enthusiastic applause from delegates.
The opposition party is gathered in high spirits, buoyed by recent poll successes and a series of body blows suffered by Blair's Labor government. On Monday the Conservatives challenged Blair to call an election now if he was confident of winning.
Britain's biggest-selling tabloid daily, the Sun, also called Tuesday for a U.S.-style debate between the two leaders.
Noting that 25 million Americans are expected to watch the Bush-Gore encounter, it asked: "Why don't we get such a debate in this country?"
The Sun said Blair's camp has accused the press of giving him a "raw deal" while the Conservatives complain about not getting enough media coverage. A televised debate would allow viewers to make up their own minds.
But the tabloid acknowledged Britain could have a problem in finding a suitably unbiased chairman, accusing BBC journalists of being "little more than lickspittle
It suggested its own political editor would make the best "referee," and concluded: "How about it Tony? What d'ya reckon, William?"
British prime ministers and opposition leaders do in fact already engage in a no-holds-barred form of political debate - the weekly "Prime Minister's Question Time" session in the House of Commons.
It is not generally broadcast in full on the public broadcasting television channel, although entertaining excerpts regularly make the evening news.
Hague, an accomplished debater, said in a television documentary broadcast last week he took the weekly duty very seriously.
"I am the one person in the country who can ask [Blair] six questions, however rude, every week and I regard that as one of the things I do on behalf of the millions of people who wish they could ask him the questions."