LONDON — Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher clashed with Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock today as Britain's election campaign got under way, refusing to debate him on television.
Kinnock, whose socialist Labor Party advocates unilateral nuclear disarmament, urged Thatcher to agree to a televised debate, but she turned him down, saying: "I fear such a debate would generate more hot air than light."
Rank-and-file Laborites chanted "Frit! Frit!"--slang for "frightened."
The two leaders squared off in the House of Commons. It was their first face-to-face meeting since Thatcher's announcement Monday that elections will be held June 11, a year ahead of schedule. Opinion polls predict her Conservative Party will win.
Thatcher was asked by a Tory lawmaker to comment on a remark by Denis Healey, Labor's spokesman on foreign affairs who is visiting Moscow, that "the Russians are praying for a Labor victory."
Shouting to be heard, the prime minister said: "No doubt a Labor government which would unilaterally give up Britain's nuclear deterrent would be the answer to the Kremlin's prayers."
She added she didn't think "much praying goes on in the Kremlin."
Conservatives want to make a major issue of Labor's promise to scrap Britain's independent nuclear deterrent and close U.S. nuclear bases in Britain. Labor hopes to focus mainly on the 11% unemployment rate, but Healey's comments in Moscow immediately deflected that.
The campaign doesn't officially begin until Queen Elizabeth II dissolves Parliament next Monday. However, the fight already was under way in the media.
Thatcher picked up immediate endorsements from three conservative papers: The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and The Sun, the country's biggest-circulation daily, which bore the headline, "Go Get 'em, Maggie."
Kinnock was backed by the Daily Mirror and the London Daily News, both owned by pro-Labor publisher Robert Maxwell.
Thatcher clearly worried about complacency among supporters of her Conservative Party. "I hope and believe we shall win," she told a TV interviewer. "But my goodness me, we shall work for it."