James is quite correct. Gordon Brown should certainly leap at the chance to have a live televised debate against David Cameron next year. I assume that the Tories think that Brown will, as he has so often before, see this as too great a risk and, consequently, "bottle it". Perhaps so. But that's also why the Prime Minister should welcome the opportunity to make a final stand in an election campaign that he otherwise seems destined to lose.
As Brother Forsyth argues, the expectations for Brown are now so low that it's hard to see how he could actually fail to "win" the debate - at least in the eyes of the media. But there are a couple of other considerations that I think Brown should keep in mind:
1. Tory smugness. Ordinarily, only the underdog wants to have a TV debate. This time, it's the favourite who wants it. That's not because it would be "good for democracy" or however else it will be dressed up. It's because the Tories think they can crush Brown in a debate and, effectively, rub his nose in it. It might not be hard to frame this as a kind of snobbish bullying. Unfair, perhaps, but not necessarily entirely so. Look, the argument might run, Cameron is so sure of victory that he thinks that, despite being favourite, he not only has nothing to lose by agreeing to a debate but that he believes he cannot lose. If I were a Labour spin-doctor I'd try and turn the debate into a Tory version of Labour's disastrous Sheffield rally in 1992.
2. Sympathy for the underdog. This might not encourage Brown much, but it could win him some friends and help get a greater percentage of the Labour core vote out on general election day. It won't win him the election, but Brown could learn from John Major's decision to, literally, get on his soap box, in 1992. I think that generated some goodwill for Major. It's not wholly impossible that braving a debate in clearly unpropitious circumstances would do something similar for Brown.
3. Take one for the team. Even if Cameron were to crush Brown in a debate the precedent of holding debates would have been set. That would make it very difficult for Cameron to avoid participating in more debates at the next general election. Since that election seems likely, as matters stand, to come at a time when the public finances remain in a state of disrepair and Tory reforms - such as they are - have had little time to be seen to work, it's not obvious that Cameron would want to have a debate in such circumstances. But he'd have to or face not unreasonable accusations that he was chicken.
Of course it might not work out like that. I merely hazard that it's not impossible that one or two or all of these points could have some bearing on the election. Perhaps that's what Lord Mandelson thinks too? I dunno, but I can't, off-hand, think of many, indeed any, good reasons for why Brown should back out of such a confrontation.
UPDATE: Just to be clear, I don't think a debate can save Brown. The question for Labour is, What can be salvaged? And since these things are more or less a zero sum game and Cameron now has more to lose than Brown, it stands to reason that Brown should accept the challenge.