LONDON Prime Minister Gordon Brown will face the leaders of the two biggest opposition parties in Britain's first live televised election debates in the run-up to polls next year, the government said on Monday.
While such debates have been a familiar feature in the United States and many other countries for years, they have yet to play a part in any general election campaign.
Critics say live TV debates turn elections into "beauty contests" that promote personalities at the expense of policies.
Brown, trailing the Conservatives in opinion polls before an election that must be held by June 2010, said he looked forward to debating issues such as the economy.
"The country needs to debate whether we lock in the recovery or whether we choke it off," he said in a statement.
Most polls have given Conservative leader David Cameron, regarded as more media-friendly than Brown, enough of a lead to win a workable majority in parliament next year, ending 13 years of continuous centre-left Labour rule.
However, some surveys in the last few weeks suggest Brown has chipped away at Cameron's lead and the result could be a lot closer than previously expected.
Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband said the three debates would expose Cameron, a former public relations executive, as a "relatively shallow" politician.
"He (Cameron) may have the good lines, but his plans will amount to something quite dangerous for Britain, for our economy and for our public services," Miliband told Channel 4 News.
Cameron said the debates would be a "step forward for our democracy" after a year marred by a scandal over politicians' expenses claims.
"It is something that, in such a bad year for politics and parliament, we can proudly celebrate," he said. "We have joined the 21st century."
Although Brown is often seen as a weaker media performer than Cameron, analysts say the Labour leader has tended to fare better during recent, weekly question and answer sessions in parliament. Aides hope he can translate that into convincing on-screen performances.
The peak-time election debates, to be shown on the BBC, ITV and Sky television networks, will last for up to 90 minutes and will also give voters a chance to scrutinise the third main party, the Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg.