British Prime Minister Hopefuls Debate for First Time on TV

BY Larisa Epatko  April 15, 2010 at 3:23 PM EST

Britain’s three main candidates for prime minister are meeting in their first televised debate Thursday, ahead of what has turned into a highly contested national election on May 6.

The 90-minute debate, featuring the Labor Party’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Conservative leader David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, is expected to draw an audience of about 20 million viewers, while several news outlets plan to live-blog the event, including The Guardian.

The candidates have debated every week in the House of Commons during the prime minister’s question time, but now they will engage in an American-style prime-time televised event with much more at stake. Two of the three candidates have consulted with experts from President Obama’s campaign.

A year ago the election would have been a done deal, said GlobalPost’s London correspondent Michael Goldfarb. The Labor party had been in power for more than a decade, was considered tired and unpopular, and people were looking to make a change with the Conservative party, he said.

“But the fact that Cameron and his top team are all fairly young guys who had been basically professional politicians, haven’t really run anything or managed any enterprises, has put a question in people’s minds about do they have the necessary experience to handle what is still an extremely difficult economic situation,” Goldfarb explained.

“So the election has narrowed in terms of the opinion polls, and it’s a real horse race to see what is going to happen and who is going to be the next prime minister.”

Thursday’s debate will be the first major political event of the election season, bringing with it a certain beauty pageant aspect akin to American televised debates, he continued.

The youthful Cameron might be able to convince the undecided voters of his party’s competence, while Brown might convey gravitas and experience, and Clegg might convince people that neither one should run the country, forcing a coalition government, said Goldfarb.

“Everything is up in the air and that’s what makes this an incredibly exciting event,” he said.

The party leaders will appear again on the telly on April 22 and 29 to debate foreign policy issues and the economy.

Tune into the NewsHour tonight, when associate executive producer Simon Marks reports from London on the brouhaha surrounding the debate.