Nick Clegg has proven he wasn’t a one-hit wonder in Britain’s second election debate, holding his own against Labour’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Conservatives’ David Cameron over thorny issues such as Afghanistan, the Catholic sex abuse scandal and the special relationship with the United States.
Clegg shook up the race last week, emerging as a clear winner in Britain’s first U.S.-style election debate and boosting the profile of the Liberal Democrats, the country’s third-largest party. Thursday’s debate, however, was razor-sharp. One poll gave Mr. Clegg a paperthin edge while others put him neck-and-neck with Mr. Cameron. Still, Mr. Clegg managed to keep some of his political stardust — respondents in one of the polls said the 43-year-old seemed to be the most honest of the three.
But the real test before the May 6 election will be next week’s debate on the economy. Britain has one of the highest deficits in Europe with soaring unemployment. Mr. Brown, the former Treasury chief who has become deeply unpopular, could redeem himself in the final debate by giving voters a convincing economic recovery plan.
“I’m impressed by the positivity of Nick Clegg,” said audience member Andrew Pring, 44. “I’m interested in the possibility of electoral change, and David Cameron had nothing to offer. On the economy Gordon (Brown) speaks well, but he was on the watch when it all went wrong.”
Thursday’s debate came as anti-war protesters gathered outside the studio hosting the prime-time duel.
Much of the debate focused on foreign policy issues where there were clear differences between the leaders — Mr. Clegg said Britain’s ever-present but expensive relationship with the United States needed to be re-evaluated, Mr. Cameron continued his line that Britain shouldn’t be run by Europe and Mr. Brown continued with his support for a costly plan to replace the country’s four nuclear-armed submarines to guard against potential threats from Iran and other nations.
It was the closest Britain has come to the famous 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate — every grimace and blemish were seen in high-definition television format.
Polls suggest that no party will win an outright majority. That situation could turn the Liberal Democrats into a kingmaker, bartering with both Labour and the Conservative for things they want — namely electoral changes that could weaken Britain’s traditional two-party system.
Although Mr. Clegg has stunned pollsters, he is unlikely to become prime minister because Britain’s electoral system is not proportional so parties must win the majority of districts not the popular vote. This puts smaller and newer parties at a disadvantage. Most core voters still either vote Conservative or Labour.
Mr. Brown, who was deferential to Mr. Clegg in last week’s debate, was on the attack for much of Thursday. At one point, he told Mr. Clegg to “get real,” for suggesting money designated to replace nuclear-armed subs may be better spent. He also repeatedly ridiculed Mr. Clegg and Mr. Cameron, both 16 years his junior.
“These two guys remind me of my two young boys squabbling at bathtime, squabbling about referendums on the EU when what we need is jobs and growth and recovery,” said Mr. Brown, 59. “I’m afraid David is anti-European, Nick is anti-American and both are out of touch with reality.”
Mr. Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats voted against the U.S.-led Iraq war, has in the past questioned British “subservience” to U.S. interests.
“It’s an immensely important special relationship, but it shouldn’t be a one-way street. We shouldn’t always do what our American friends tell us to do.”
An automated telephone poll taken by ComRes after the debate showed that 2,691 viewers favoured Clegg by a tiny margin. About a third of viewers believed that Mr. Clegg won the debate, while 30 per cent believed that Mr. Brown or Mr. Cameron won. The margin of error for that sample size is plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Mr. Cameron, who gave a lacklustre performance in last week’s debate, appeared to learn from his mistakes — he looked directly at the camera and seemed more confident on Thursday. He almost lost his temper when he accused Mr. Brown of allowing campaign leaflets that suggested a Conservative government would cut benefits for the elderly.
“These lies you are getting from Labour are pure and simple lies. I have seen these lies and they make me very, very angry.”
Both Labour and the Conservatives voted for Britain to go to war in Iraq, a stance that has hurt them with anti-war sentiment still strong in Britain. The Labour Party, which has been in power for 13 years, lost many seats in the 2005 general election when voters cast protest ballots against Tony Blair’s decision to lead Britain into Iraq.
One audience member asked if leaders would support other multinational military operation.
Afghanistan, the latest nettlesome mission, in which 280 British troops have died, is now one of Britain’s longest and most costly conflicts, draining government coffers as the country tries to recover from its worst recession since World War II. Some 10,000 British troops are still there.
Mr. Clegg said troops needed better equipment. “If you put soldiers into harm’s way, you either do the job properly or don’t do it at all,” he said.
An audience member also asked whether the leaders backed Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain in September, and if they supported the church’s stance on the sex abuse scandal, condoms, homosexuality and stem cell research.
All three men said they supported the visit, which is due to cost taxpayers some £15 million pounds ($22.5 million).
Mr. Cameron was most definitive, however, on other differences with the church, saying the church has “very serious work to do to unearth and come to terms with some of the appalling things that have happened.”
Mr. Clegg, a former member of the European Parliament, once backed Britain adopting the euro and has talked about forging stronger ties with Europe. He stressed on Thursday that Britain needs cooperation from other European countries if progress is to be made on terrorism, immigration, climate change and bank regulation.
Mr. Cameron has long been a euro-skeptic and stood apart from both Mr. Clegg and Mr. Brown on Thursday when he suggested again there should be a referendum allowing British people to say whether they want to be part of the European Union.
Candidates managed to inject campaign mantras into the debate — with the Conservatives warning that a hung Parliament and a coalition government could hurt the pound and Britain’s credit rating and Mr. Brown saying that a Conservative government would jeopardize the economy and the Liberal Democrats could risk Britain’s national security.
Questions were posed by a pre-selected audience in the debate, which was governed by some 76 rules.