Debate sets stage for photo finish in British election

Britain’s main political party leaders appeared to emerge neck-and-neck from a live TV debate on foreign policy late Thursday, reinforcing predictions of a close finish in the May 6 general election.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who leads the Labour Party, Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg each received approval ratings of around 30 per cent in an instant telephone survey after the debate.

A second poll showed that both Brown and Cameron had considerably improved their performances, while Clegg, winner of a similar debate a week ago, came down from 51 per cent to 32 per cent in the instant ratings.

The live TV debates, a novelty in British electoral history, are seen as having a potentially decisive influence on the outcome of the election, in which Brown is fighting for the continuation of a Labour government and for his own political survival.

“If this is all about style and PR, count me out,” Brown said, conceding his much-vaunted lack of communication skills, while presenting himself as the politician of substance who could secure economic recovery.

Cameron, who was widely seen as having given a weak performance in the first debate, improved his standing, according to the polls, managing to present his party as a genuine new alternative even after 13 years of Labour rule.

But Clegg, declared the undisputed winner of the first round, failed to inspire in the same way this time, according to commentators. His earlier performance, which was generally seen as having electrified the campaign, saw the LibDems’ share of the vote in opinion polls rise to more than 30 per cent.

Newspapers hailed him as “Britain’s Obama” and said Clegg could change Britain’s traditional two-party politics forever. But on Thursday night, commentators said the election campaign was set to return to more “traditional patterns.”

The debate topics included Britain’s place in the European Union (EU), the war in Afghanistan, terrorism, nuclear defence and immigration.

At the end of the debate, conducted in a generally more aggressive tone, Brown accused Cameron of being “anti-European” and Clegg of being “anti-American,” which is why Labour needed to win on May 6.

Analysts said the election was now truly a “three-horse race,” with the prospect of a “hung Parliament” in which neither of the two big parties would gain an overall majority.

If that was to happen, Clegg could play the crucial role of power- broker in forming a new government.


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