The head of Britain’s third party has emerged as a clear winner in a first-ever live pre-election TV debate.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative chief David Cameron traded verbal blows in front of a carefully chosen audience, battling over issues from the economy to Afghanistan deemed crucial ahead of next month’s ballot.
But it was Nick Clegg, leader of third party the Liberal Democrats, who came out as the winner — at least according to an instant poll that gave him 43 percent support, against 26 percent for Cameron and 20 percent for Brown.
With polls suggesting a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party, Clegg’s performance was being closely watched: his party could play a role in forming a government after the May 6 general election.
Dressed in suits and standing behind podiums, the leaders appeared nervous as the first such debate in British election history got under way — but it quickly descended into political scrapping.
There were fierce clashes between Brown and Cameron on the economy, a key issue in the election as Britain recovers from its worst recession since the 1930s.
Brown repeatedly accused the Tories of planning to cut six billion pounds (nine billion dollars, seven billion euros) of public spending by slashing a planned rise in payroll taxes by his Labour party.
“If you take that money out now I fear for what could happen, and I do not want to have a double dip recession in this country,” he said, voicing concern that Britain could slip back into negative growth after its fragile recovery.
But the Tory leader hit back, saying: “Cut the waste, stop the tax, that is the right answer.”
Clegg, meanwhile, repeatedly argued that he offered a chance for real change in Britain.
“Don’t let them tell you that the only choice is between two old parties who have been playing pass the parcel with your government for 65 years.”
The Liberal Democrats have long trailed in third place in opinion polls.
On this night at least however, Clegg appeared to have made the greatest impact: a poll of 4,000 people taken immediately after the debate gave him a large lead.
Clegg was deemed the winner by 43 percent in the poll conducted by the ITV broadcaster, which hosted the 90-minute debate.
Cameron scored 26 percent, while 20 percent of those asked thought Brown had won. Eleven percent said none of the three emerged as clear winner.
The debate in Manchester, northwest England, was expected to attract 20 million viewers, comparable with the audience for a major England World Cup football match.
There were no major slip-ups in the tightly controlled showdown — it was governed by 76 rules hammered out in painstaking negotiations between broadcasters and the parties.
Cameron, the media-friendly 43-year-old seeking to topple Brown and take the Conservatives back to power after 13 years of Labour dominance, had expressed concern that the strict rules could lead to a stilted debate.
Brown is said to have struggled in rehearsals for the debates — but he gave an assured performance and his fierce attacks on the rival leaders forced the moderator to weigh in to control the discussion on several occasions.
For Clegg, the debate was a rare opportunity to earn equal billing with the two main party leaders.
He made clear attempts to connect directly with spectators, remembering in his closing speech the names of the audience members who had put questions throughout the night.
Brown tried the same trick — but came up with only one name. He also attempted to show off his pop culture credentials, pointing out the debate was not on at the same time as talent shows “The X-Factor” or “Britain’s Got Talent.”