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UK election rivals in historic TV clash

Britain’s party leaders clashed verbally Thursday in a first-ever live pre-election television debate, ahead of knife-edge polls next month.


Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron repeatedly interrupted each other at the start of the closely-watched debate, the first of three before May 6 ballots.

“You can’t airbrush your policies even if you can airbrush your posters,” Brown told Cameron, referring to a much-criticised campaign poster showing the Tory leader with suspiciously smooth features.

A snap online poll by broadcaster ITV, hosting the first debate, showed that Nick Clegg of the third party the Liberal Democrats was the early winner with 39 percent backing, with Cameron and Brown both on around 30 percent.

Each was seeking an advantage in the debate on domestic policy, although Britain’s first foray into leaders’ TV debates was governed by 76 rules hammered out in painstaking negotiations between broadcasters and the parties.

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.

Cameron, the media-friendly 43-year-old seeking to topple Brown and take the Conservatives back to power after 13 years of Labour dominance, has expressed concern that the strict rules could lead to a stilted debate.

Even his own party admits that the tight format may not suit Brown.

He is said to have struggled in rehearsals for the debates, giving answers that run far beyond allowed time limits or reverting to reeling off lists of statistics.

But as the debate unfolded Thursday evening he repeatedly challenged both Cameron and Clegg, forcing the moderator to weigh in to control the discussion on several occasions.

The Conservatives have seen a clear lead in the opinion polls melt away, and most surveys now point to a hung parliament, with the Conservatives as the largest party.

That would mean Clegg’s Liberal Democrats could be courted to help form a government, giving his participation in the TV debate added significance.

Aides said Clegg saw his participation in the debate as a rare opportunity to earn equal billing with the two main party leaders.

There was a boost for Brown ahead of the debate as more than 50 leading economists from Britain, the United States, Germany, Australia and Canada attacked the Conservatives’ plans, warning they could tip the country back into recession.

Britain only moved back into economic growth at the end of last year after the longest recession in modern history.

The letter attacking the Tories’ plans, obtained by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, comes more than two weeks after a rival letter signed by some of Britain’s most senior businessmen backing Cameron’s tax plans.

The 58 academics warned that the Tories’ proposal to reduce public spending by six billion pounds (nine billion dollars, seven billion euros) in a bid to reduce Britain’s massive public deficit could cause job losses.

“At a time when recovery is delicate it could even affect confidence to the degree that we are tipped back into recession,” it warned.

Signatories of the letter include David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee.

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