Famously, it is not over until the proverbial “fat lady'' has sung — and there are still six days to go for that — but the outcome of the third and the final leaders' televised debate on Thursday that left Prime Minister Gordon Brown struggling again put paid to any Labour hope of recovery in the run-up to the polling day on May 6.

Despite a combative performance, arguably his best so far, Mr. Brown was ranked third in post-poll debates with his Tory rival David Cameron first and the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg second. Critics were quick to describe it as the “last nail in Labour's coffin'' with Mr. Clegg, the surprise star of Britain's experiment with U.S.-style television debates, declaring that it was now a “two-horse race'' between his party and the Tories.

The debate, marked by angry exchanges over the economy and immigration, was held under the shadow of Mr. Brown's disastrous gaffe the previous day when he was forced to offer a public apology after being caught on a “live'' microphone calling a woman voter a “bigot''.

Mr. Brown prefaced his opening remarks with a self-deprecatory reference to the incident saying: “There's a lot to this job, and as you saw yesterday, I don't get all of it right. But I do know how to run the economy, in good times and bad.''

Economy, which was the theme of the debate, is regarded as Mr. Brown's strongest suit and Thursday's encounter was billed as his last chance to reverse the tide that has seen him and Labour consistently poll third in recent weeks. In public, his spin managers insisted it had been a “barnstorming'' performance from their man and that the race was “still wide open'' but inside the party there was said to be growing frustration over the continuing run of bad news. In a desperate move, Labour wheeled out Tony Blair, ousted by Mr. Brown three years ago after a bitter power struggle, to pep up its faltering campaign. Mr. Blair, who won three consecutive elections for the party tried to cheer things up declaring that Labour had “every chance of succeeding''.

The debate, hosted by the BBC, was watched by more than eight million voters — nearly twice the number who watched the Sky debate last week but less than the 10 million for the first debate hosted by ITV.

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