At first glance, Theresa May’s push for a television debate with Jeremy Corbyn looks understandable as part of her drive to be seen doing everything she can to persuade people of the merits of her Brexit deal.
The Prime Minister wishes to demonstrate she will leave no stone unturned and spare herself no exertion between now and the vote on 11th December. She is also confident she has a far greater command than Corbyn of the meaning and detail of her proposals, so has good chances of showing him up as a lazy thinker who has not gripped the subject.
But the more one examines how the debate might actually work, the odder it looks, and the less surprising it has become a stumbling block, with no agreement even about whether the BBC or ITV will host it.
Brexit is a horribly complicated subject, with a wide range of mutually contradictory outcomes being canvassed by devoted adherents, ranging from No Deal to the Norway option to a second referendum. It is obvious May and Corbyn have no interest in doing justice to these different ideas.
The Prime Minister is determined to frame this as a choice between her deal and chaos. She is entitled to push that line, but the broadcasters cannot allow themselves to become mere tools in Downing Street’s propaganda offensive.
So the BBC proposed a panel of 20, half of whom would back the PM and half of whom would canvass other options. It then agreed to reduce the panel to ten, split the same way.
What scope for rancour there is in this proposal. No one is likely to feel that in the small amount of time available, his or her cherished ideas about the best way forward have been represented as well as they deserve to be represented.
Happily, there exists a better way of having this debate. A chamber exists in which 40 hours have already been set aside for it, with over 600 members on hand to represent the different points of view.
This chamber has rules of debate which have evolved over a long period, and which enable opposing points of view to be expounded and challenged. It can and does oblige the Prime Minister to attend for hours on end, in order to answer every possible question, not just from the Leader of the Opposition but from the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, the Democratic Unionists, the Liberals and from many Conservative and other backbenchers who have important and often inconvenient points about which they wish to inquire.
The Members of this House, who have been elected under clearly understood rules by the whole nation, feel themselves under pressure to be intelligible, and if possible to make their arguments in pithy and witty form, for there is then the greatest chance of getting what they have to say across to the wider public. They can be lobbied by their constituents, and find it prudent to remain aware of local opinion, while also exercising their informed judgment on the often very intricate and contentious questions which need to be resolved.
The House has a quick-witted chairman whose duty is to facilitate this process, learned clerks who know how to give legal form to the different options, and voting procedures which enable decisions to be taken. There are also press and public galleries from which the debate can be watched and reported, and the proceedings will, incidentally, be televised.
Why hold the other, much shorter television debate, under improvised and inevitably unsatisfactory rules of procedure, when this far superior forum, known as the House of Commons, already exists?