Tonight, Britain's Future Is Up for Debate

For the first time ever, candidates for prime minister will meet in a televised face-off. Obama gurus are in both corners. Can Gordon Brown avoid Richard Nixon’s fate?

On Thursday, the U.K. will hold its first top-of-the-ticket televised debate between party leaders. The 90-minute contest between Gordon Brown, the Labour prime minister, and David Cameron, the Conservative candidate for the Britain’s highest post, has observers on both sides of the Atlantic in a Mad Man state of mind.

That’s because the first televised U.S. presidential debate happened in September 1960, when Richard Nixon and his five-o’clock shadow faced off with Jack Kennedy. The exchange ushered in a new era for American politics and media. Nixon famously prevailed among voters who listened to the debate on the radio—but his sweaty visage cost him among those who watched on the tube. Now television has the opportunity to transform British politics as well. After years of U.S. envy over British Parliament’s “Question Time”—with its tough grilling and requirement that politicians think on their feet—England is suddenly craving the contact sport of an American campaign debate.

Margaret Thatcher once told Labour’s Neil Kinnock that a debate on television “would generate more hot air than light.”

And their candidates are calling in Beltway veterans for some friendly advice. The campaign has split Team Obama. Anita Dunn, the White House communications director until last fall, and Bill Knapp, a veteran Obama hand, are advising Cameron. (Dunn’s husband, lawyer Robert Bauer, is responsible for Obama’s Supreme Court confirmation strategy.) Pollster Joel Benenson, who helped prepare Obama for his debates, is running Brown through his paces. Joining Benenson is Michael Sheehan, speech coach to the Democratic stars, who prepped Obama for his 2004 DNC speech. During the campaign, Obama paid a visit to Cameron and Brown in London. In the dynamic Cameron, Obama found a kindred spirit. Cameron has sounded sunny, Obama-like notes about “change” throughout the campaign. His personality, and the fact that the British right is far to the left of America’s, may explain how Obama advisers wound up on the Conservative’s side. Yet since being elected, Obama has found a dependable partner in Brown, who led the way in the planning the global economic recovery.

Novelist Ian McEwan talks to Tina Brown about the electionIt’s not just the first-of-its-kind quality that has people talking about Nixon and Kennedy. Brown and Cameron seem perfectly cast to reprise the two roles. The 59-year-old prime minister has a Nixonian reputation for surliness and bullying. An April Fool’s Day article in The Guardian offered a perfect slogan for the Brown campaign: “Vote Labour. Or Else.” It’s easy to imagine Brown perambulating through the Cotswolds in wingtips, just as Nixon once famously walked the beach in dress shoes.

Behind the other lectern will be the fresh-faced David Cameron. A generation younger than Brown, the 43-year-old could represent a new chapter in British politics, just as Kennedy once did in the United States. His family's glamor—wife Samantha is creative director at Smythson of Bond Street and and a descendant of King Charles II—smacks of Camelot. Unveiling the party's manifesto this week, Cameron even quoted Kennedy's famous line for his inauguration: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.'"

The bookies say the odds favor the telegenic Cameron in Thursday’s debate.

British politicians have sneered at the idea of a televised debate for generations. Margaret Thatcher once told Labour’s Neil Kinnock that a debate on television “would generate more hot air than light.” But Brown’s Labour Party, battered by an expense scandal and a troubled economy, came to believe they’d fallen so far back that the stunt of an American-style televised debate could change the equation. Since making that decision, enthusiasm for Cameron has indeed waned, and a new spring in the economy’s step has helped propel Brown to within striking distance of the Conservatives. With three weeks remaining until Britons go to the polls, the debates loom large. The contest will focus on two problems which sound downright American: health care and political corruption.

A few things to watch for in the debate:

Will people tune in? Fifty to 60 million people watched the McCain and Obama debates in 2008. Only the most-watched shows receive that kind of audience in Britain. Right now the public seems rather uninterested. A Populus poll taken Wednesday suggests that enthusiasm for both Labour and the Tories is low. More voters would rather see a hung parliament, where no party will has an outright majority, than an outright victory for either side. More than two out of five voters say neither Labour nor the Conservatives are making a convincing case to the voters.

If they tune in, will they stick around?The format of the debate has been greatly contested and seems designed to drain as much color out of the contest as possible. More than 70 different protocols govern the conversation. Questions will be pre-screened, drawn from a studio audience, which has been selected to be representative of the electorate. Brown, Cameron, and the leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, who will also join the debate, won’t be allowed to address each other directly. Best of all, campaign aides will have a direct phone line to the debate’s producers if they think anything—from the lighting to the questions—treats their man unfairly.

What will you bet on?Forget winners and losers, the fun will be in the details. The bookies at Ladbrokes have open bets available on what color tie David Cameron will wear. On Wednesday, chances are 33 to 1 that the Old Etonian will sport a white one. Odds are 5 to 1 that Brown and Cameron won’t shake hands on camera.

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Will there be a spoiler?Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, may have the best chance to benefit from Thursday’s dust-up. Standing next to Brown and Cameron in the national spotlight, the lesser-known candidate will have a shot at grabbing headlines. With dissatisfaction plaguing both major parties, Clegg could siphon off enough votes to force a hung parliament, perhaps guiding Brown’s party into a shotgun marriage. One recent poll had the Liberal Dems taking 21 percent of the vote with 29 going to Labour and 35 percent to the Tories. That possibility puts terror in the hearts of some Britons who worry that a government already plagued with scandal will become a circus of backroom deals.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.