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Hold the front page: TV election debates come to Britain

LONDON — What's the big news in today's British papers?

Bombs on the Moscow subway? President Barack Obama's flying visit to Kabul?  No, it was last night's first ever televised election debate in Britain. And the election hasn't even been called yet! And it wasn't even the party leaders debating — one of whom will become Prime Minister. The debaters were the likely chancellors of the Exchequer (treasury secretary in American parlance). Hard to imagine a major TV network giving over an hour of prime time to a live debate between Timothy Geithner and whoever the Republicans might call on to run America's Treasury Department. Although given the Tea Party's influence on the GOP, in 2012 Republicans may include a platform pledge to disband the Treasury altogether as an intrusion of government into people's private lives and so refuse to put up a candidate for the discussion.

Over here, prime time political economic discussion never created such a stir. The front pages and newspaper websites this morning are stuffed with stories and comment about the big night. It must have been like this when the first commercial airlines started flying the Atlantic from New York to London — modernity has arrived in the mother country. 

One thing that hadn't arrived with this debate was the over-rehearsed, pre-packaged soundbite discourse which has reduced televised election debating in America to a ritualized and uninformative discussion: reality TV at its most boring. The three debaters — Labour's Alistair Darling, Conservative's George Osborne and the Liberal Democrat's Vince Cable — all spoke as if they understood the gravity of the Britain's economic situation and the limitations on government in trying to steer the nation back to something like prosperity. Jokes were thin on the ground ... and the few that were made I can't explain to you because — like politics — they were very, very local. All three agreed they would have to make cuts to government services to reduce Britain's mountain of debt, all agreed there would have to be re-regulation of Britain's banks and financial services industry.  

There was something for all quarters of the press to admire in the performance. The left-ish Guardian and the center-leaning Times (well, center is a relative term) declared the Lib Dems Vince Cable the evening's big winner, noting that he was free to speak in detail because his party has no chance of winning the election. The ultra-right-wing Daily Mail invoked the name of their living saint, Margaret Thatcher, noting that all three men vowed to cut government spending more dramatically than the Iron Lady. The not quite as rabid but equally right-wing Daily Telegraph was quick to spin that it was George Osborne who won the debate. Well, not really.

Osborne was my main interest in last night's discussion. He is 38 and cursed by the fact that he looks about 25. In addition he was educated at one of Britain's most elite public schools (private school) Oxford and has held no real job in his life.  When he speaks of cuts or attacks Labour, he comes across as a very spoiled child. He may be the most intelligent young man on this island and a really, super nice chap, but that's not how people, even conservative voters, see him. My view is he won't have convinced undecided voters about whether he has the necessary life experience to do the job.

Anyway it was fun and whetted the appetite for the main event or events.  There are three debates scheduled among the party leaders whenever the general election is called, which should be any time now. The likely date for the next election is May 6.