Opposition leaders in TV clash three weeks before UK vote

AFP , Friday 17 Apr 2015

(L-R) Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and UKIP leader Nigel Farage participate in the televised leader's debate in London, April 16, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

The opposition parties vying for a role in Britain's next government went head-to-head late Thursday in a crunch television debate three weeks from what promises to be the closest election in decades.

Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party and its main rival, Ed Miliband's Labour, are neck-and-neck in the polls ahead of the May 7 vote and both may have to rely on support from smaller parties to form a majority.

Cameron did not take part in the event, drawing sharp criticism from Miliband, who ended with a direct challenge to the premier to debate him face to face.

"David, if you think this election is about leadership, then debate me one-on-one," Miliband said. "Debate me and let the people decide."

Cameron has strictly limited the number of TV debates he joins during the election campaign over concerns that his performance in them at 2010's election may have cost him an overall majority.

Miliband also clashed with Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), over whether their two parties could team up to govern.

The SNP looks set to win a majority of the seats in Scotland and has talked up its prospects of an arrangement with Labour to keep Cameron out of Downing Street.

"We have a chance to kick David Cameron out of Downing Street," Sturgeon told Miliband. "Don't turn your back on it, people will never forgive you."

But Miliband insisted he was aiming for an outright majority and rejected the idea of a formal coalition with a party that seeks Scottish independence and the break up of the United Kingdom, saying: "It's a 'no', I'm afraid."

His comments did not explicitly rule out a more informal arrangement under which the SNP could support a Labour minority government in return for concessions.

Cameron on Friday sought to put pressure on Miliband over the issue, warning of the consequences of any kind of post-election tie-up with the SNP.

"Ed Miliband won't rule out a vote-by-vote deal with the SNP so he can be PM. It would mean more borrowing and more taxes and you would pay," he wrote on Twitter.

Miliband, who has battled to replace a geeky public image with a tougher persona during the campaign, was declared the winner of the debate in a Survation poll of 1,013 viewers for the Daily Mirror newspaper.

The Labour leader came out on top with 35 percent of viewers judging him the winner, followed by 31 percent for the SNP's Sturgeon and 27 percent for Nigel Farage of the anti-European Union UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Farage blamed high levels of immigration for causing housing shortages and insisted that Britain would be "much better if we governed ourselves".

But he was jeered by the in-studio audience after he accused them of having a left-wing bias, prompting BBC moderator David Dimbleby to point out an independent polling company had been commissioned to select a representative audience for the broadcaster.

The leaders of the Green Party and Welsh nationalists Plaid received applause as they argued angrily against Conservative and Labour plans for further spending cuts to balance the budget and criticised Farage for his immigration stance.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the leader of the junior coalition partner in Cameron's government, the Liberal Democrats, was not invited to join the debate after Cameron refused.

On April 30, a week before the vote, Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will appear in the fourth and final television election event, in which they will answer voters' questions without debating each other. 

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