Leaders' debates: don't get too excited, will you?

Much synthetic media excitement is being generated tonight about the leaders’ debates just fixed for the general election campaign next year. Of course, any such exposure is welcome. But as a veteran of similar exercises during the London mayoral election, can I pour just a trickle of cold water?

The endless mayoral “hustings” of that campaign were, almost without exception, crucifyingly boring and changed nothing. To be fair, that was partly a reflection of who organised them. They were modern London’s equivalent of Stations of the Cross, in which all candidates were required to perform the ritual genuflections before whichever of the capital’s unrepresentative sectional lobby groups – sorry, diverse’n’vibrant communities – had hired the hall that night. They almost never rose above what’s-in-it-for-us politics, and if I’d had to hear Boris Johnson’s joke about protecting Ken Livingstone’s OAP bus pass one more time, I would have killed Boris myself.

The national debates won’t be like that, but they do risk boredom in another way. If they’re anything like US presidential encounters, they won’t really be debates at all, but artificial, regimented encounters at which the candidates read soundbites at each other. The presence of Nick Clegg, though obviously necessary, will further blunt the opportunity for real interaction between the two actual contenders.

I’d be surprised if it comes anywhere near the electricity generated by the election editions of Question Time: that one where Tony Blair was fearlessly and ruthlessly grilled by the QT audience was one of the greatest highlights of British democracy in many years. I hope, of course, to be proved wrong.

PS: Enjoying the hopeful speculation over the last few days that Boris won’t run again in 2012, choosing to return to Westminster and national politics. Of course I can’t be certain – and knowing Boris, I rather suspect that nobody will know for certain until about 5pm on the day nominations close – but do think this one through, folks.

Which job offers Boris a better platform to achieve his undoubted ambition of being the next Tory leader? Is it (a) minister for paperclips in a David Cameron cabinet, where he will be bound by collective responsibility, firmly sat on by the PM and obliged to share the blame for whatever disasters befall the Cameron regime? Or is it (b) a job with an independent budget, direct personal mandate, massive media profile, Olympics flag-waving powers and full deniability for said disasters?

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