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UK audience grills Cameron, Miliband, Clegg in Question Time 'debate'

Members of the public in Leeds posed the questions in the last televised round of UK leader "debates," ahead of next week's general election. David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all faced a tough crowd.

The last round of televised debates ahead of the UK elections also failed to take the format the opposition wanted: a one-on-one debate between the two heavy hitters, Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. Instead, Cameron, then Miliband, then Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg faced a BBC audience in Leeds as part of a special edition of the program "Question Time."

The audience was specially selected: one quarter supported Cameron, another quarter Miliband, and another Clegg, with the remaining 25 percent either undecided, or planning to vote for another party.

Cameron, who has been reluctant to accept a head-to-head with Miliband, a combative debater, faced a question on why he ducked a "straight fight" with his main election opponent.

"We debated in the House 146 times," Cameron said, referring to Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. "It's not always that instructive! In fact, I think this - giving you the chance to ask questions - I think this is more powerful than a television debate."

However, Labour's shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, portrayed the matter rather differently on Twitter.

Spending cuts, immigration, dominate Cameron's time

Around half of Cameron's half-hour on stage was devoted to the issue of cutting public spending, hours after the Liberal Democrats claimed to "reveal" the Conservative government's planned cuts for the coming term in government. Cameron's Tories have pledged increased NHS spending, no tax increases, but also a continually reduced budget deficit, without explaining where the gains will be made on the balance sheet.

Cameron is campaigning on a platform of partially-completed economic recovery after the so-called Great Recession of 2008 - he even produced an infamous note from the outgoing Labour government at the start of his term in 2010 saying "sorry, there's no money," to show the crowd. Challenged on the rising number of UK citizens - around one million in 2014 - resorting to using food banks, he said there was still work to do.

"I'm not saying everything is perfect, I'm saying we haven't finished the work. That's why I'm so keen to do another five-year term," Cameron said. "It takes a long time to fix the mess that I inherited."

Asked about how he intended to control immigration - a sore topic after the Conservatives missed its 2010 election pledge to reduce net migration into Britain - Cameron outlined a four-point plan to restrict movement within the EU.

His suggestions - no benefits for EU migrants as they seek jobs, a rule forcing them to return home if they can't find a job within six months, and rules preventing migrants from claiming social security until they have paid taxes for several years - all tallied well with the sorts of policies advocated by Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats in Germany. These suggestions caught the attention of the anti-EU leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage.

Cameron has pledged an "in/out" referendum on EU membership for the UK if he's re-elected, to be held in 2017 after renegotiating terms of membership in Brussels.

'I'm not gonna sacrifice the unity of this country'

Ed Miliband faced just as stern a set of questions from the BBC audience, not least several questioning fiscal responsibility after Labour left office immediately after the financial crisis and subsequent recession.

"We got it wrong on bank regulation," Miliband said, mirroring what seems to be a running tactic during the campaign of unequivocally admitting to past party failures, before asking people to look ahead. "We made that mistake. We've learned that lesson for the future. I'm the first Labour leader going into an election saying that spending in key areas is going to fall."

The Labour leader said reversing tax cuts for Britain's top earners, hardly a secret part of the party's economic plans, would help his party cut less fiercely than the Conservatives, while still bringing spending down.

His toughest questions, however, came on the topic of the Scottish National Party, and any possible alliance with the nationalists north of the border.

"We're not gonna have a deal," he said of a possible alliance in the case of a hung parliament, which the polls currently suggest. "If it meant not being in government - not having a coalition - then so be it. I'm not gonna sacrifice the unity of this country."

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon - expected to clean up in Scotland next week - openly appealed to Miliband in an earlier debate to commit to an alliance aimed at ousting Cameron's Conservatives.

'Why should we ever trust you again?'

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg faced the toughest - and most obvious - question immediately. Why, an audience member in Leeds' town hall asked, should voters ever trust Clegg again after his 2010 election promise to scrap tuition fees was followed by a coalition with the Conservatives and trebled fees for students?

"You can at least give me credit for the many, many other things that I have put into practice," Clegg responded, after acknowledging the difficulty of the opening challenge. Asked if he would still form the coalition, given the 2010 chance again, Clegg said: "Yes, absolutely. In fact, the more I look back on it the more proud I am."

He went on to try to paint a picture of the Liberal Democrats - struggling for popularity after five years with the Tories - as the logical kingmaker and coalition-builder in a hung parliament. At one point, he called the Lib Dems either a "heart for the Conservatives" or a "brain for Labour."

Unlike Cameron and Miliband, both of whom remain adamant that they are aiming for an outright parliamentary majority, Clegg argued that five more years of coalition politics was likely. He alluded to Cameron and Miliband suggesting that this process is seedy, saying deals would be struck in "darkened rooms."

"If either of them still think they're going to win a majority, they need to go and lie down in that darkened room," he quipped.

The UK votes next Thursday, May 7 - polls currently suggest it's neck and neck between the Conservatives and Labour, with both parties well shy of the overall winning post.

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