Britain's May 7 general election campaign began Thursday with a televised grilling of Prime Minister David Cameron and his Labour Party challenger Ed Miliband. They were questioned separately, without direct debate.
In a snap survey, viewers judged that Cameron put in the strongest on-air performance on Thursday evening, despite an apparent Twitter trend in favor of Miliband. He got 54 percent among 3,650 adults surveyed online in a Guardian/ICM poll, compared to 46 percent for Labour's Miliband.
Each leader faced interrogations from veteran British interviewer Jeremy Paxman (pictured above) as well as questions from a studio audience on Sky News and Channel 4 on the day parliament went into pre-election recess.
Recent polls show the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck on about 34 percent.
Cameron had refused a direct studio debate. Thursday's alternative television format was agreed after months of negotiations.
'Complete the job'
At the outset, Cameron conceded that he had made mistakes during his five years in power, but asked voters to give him a second term to rebuild the economy.
"We need to complete the job," Cameron said, adding that "difficult decisions" had already been made that had "got the deficit down by half."
He was referring to austerity cuts, including to the welfare budget, made by his coalition government comprising his Conservatives and centrist Liberal Democrats.
"What I have learnt in the past five years is that nothing you want to do will work without a strong and growing economy," Cameron added.
Miliband, when told by interviewer Paxman that many people saw him as a "North London geek," responded that he had been "underestimated at every turn."
"People said I wouldn't become leader [of Labour] and I did. People said four years ago he can't become prime minister; I think I can," Miliband said.
Asked about a British referendum on whether to keep EU membership, promised by 2017, Cameron said: "We need a new deal with Europe."
The EU had "some good aspects," Cameron said, "but others drive people mad."
Miliband, who is campaigning to do more to help struggling middle and lower income voters, conceded that Labour's terms in office between 1997 and 2010 under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown had been "wrong" on the deregulation of banks.
"I am sorry. We have got to learn from that," Miliband said. "The banks have got to work better for our businesses."
Lots of people doubted that the economy was working for them, he added.
Floating voters swayed by Miliband
According to the ICM survey, Miliband fared better among floating voters. Of those who had said they could change their minds, 56 percent said they now backed Labour, compared to 30 percent for the Conservatives.
Public affairs consultant Stuart Thomson said both candidates had got through the televised session without making serious mistakes.
"There is no doubt that Miliband exceeded expectations but Cameron held his own," Thomson told the news agency Reuters.
Thursday's questioning had "really started the firing gun on the election and all sides know they are in a real battle," Thomson said.
ipj/bk (Reuters, AFP)