No decisive winner after UK party leaders slug it out in TV debate | News | DW | 02.04.2015
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No decisive winner after UK party leaders slug it out in TV debate

The main players in the British election campaign have clashed on issues including debt, public spending and immigration - but largely avoided talking foreign policy. The vote, set to be a close-run affair, is on May 7.

Prime Minister David Cameron, positioned on the far right of a seven-person podium, struggled to assert himself in Thursday's debate, facing hostility - on one point or another - from every rival speaker on stage.

In the first and only full TV debate as part of the British campaign, following last week's quasi-head-to-head between Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband, the prime minister sought to defend his economic record since forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

"If we go back to the tax, the waste, the spending and the debt, all the things that got us into a mess in the first place, we wouldn't help working people - we'd hurt working people. That's what Labour did last time and we mustn't let it happen again," Cameron said at one point.

UK Salford Wahlen TV Debatte Cameron

Cameron cut a lonely, bullied figure at times on the right of the podium, but stood up well in the polls afterwards

Later in the debate, he gestured across at his six opponents, one by one, saying: "What I see here is more debt and more taxes, more debt and more taxes … a little more debt and some more taxes, and a lot more debt and a lot more taxes."

Miliband goes after Cameron on tax havens

Labour leader Ed Miliband - Cameron's main challenger in the fight to become prime minister in May - sought to argue that the Conservative stance was too pessimistic. "Some people will tell you that this is as good as it gets," Miliband said, stressing he felt there was still room to improve. He also attacked Cameron on issues like cracking down on tax avoidance.

"David, you just said you were tackling tax avoidance. Let's look at the reality on this, you haven't acted on the tax havens, you haven't acted on the hedge funds," Miliband, who was not wearing his party's red colors, said. "You have to ask yourself at home: Why won't David Cameron act on those hedge funds? They fund his party. He won't act. We need leadership that will stand up and act to tackle tax havens."

UK Salford Wahlen TV Debatte Miliband Leanne Wood

Miliband asserted 'I don't believe this is as good as it gets'

In the battle between the two main contenders for 10 Downing Street, pollsters could not pick a winner after the debate. One snap ITV poll put Cameron, Miliband and UKIP's Nigel Farage neck-and-neck after the clash, while the Guardian and ICM polled a sample showing Miliband to be just a single percentage point ahead of the prime minister. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the seven-person panel, no poll gave any leader even 30 percent support, with a broad spread in responses.

Clegg unsure who to attack

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, currently deputy prime minister in an uneasy alliance with the Tories, sought to score points off both Cameron and Miliband in the course of the evening.

He started with an attack on Conservative austerity policies and plans for beyond 2015. And by the end the Liberal Democrat was demanding an apology from Miliband for Labour's previous governance in the run-up to the so-called financial crisis of 2007 and 2008.

"I've apologized on issues like tuition fees," Clegg said, in reference to his pre-coalition promises not to increase the costs of university study in Britain, prior to annual tuition fees rising to 9,000 pounds ($13,400; 12,250 euros) per year.

"Now will you apologize, too?" he asked Miliband. "This is the man who was part of government and said there would be no boom and bust for the British economy. Then they crashed the economy."

Miliband retorted that many factors in the "Great Recession" after the collapse of Lehmann Brothers bank were beyond a national government's control, also claiming that Clegg's Liberals had been urging a reduction in bank regulation prior to the collapse.

Farage: 'I told you they were all the same'

The euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party's leader, Nigel Farage, tried to position himself as the sole realist among a panel of career politicians. At one point during the debate on the budget deficit, he shouted, "What's going on here? Can we get real, please?" in frustration at what he considered to be lacking acknowledgements about the rate of Britain's public borrowing.

UK Salford Wahlen TV Debatte Nigel Farage

Farage scored well in audience polls, claiming that all his opponents offered the same thing when it came to the EU

"You see I warned you at the beginning that they were all the same," he said in his closing statements, saying his party represented "plain-spoken patriotism."

Farage had sought to score points during the extended segment on immigration, arguing that while freedom of movement in the EU used to work well - involving countries whose economic strength was "broadly similar" - it had become uncontrollable since the EU's eastward expansion to countries with considerably lower average living standards.

SNP's Sturgeon sticks up for immigrants, students

Farage met his match on the issue of immigration from a somewhat unlikely corner, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) retorted that immigrants living in Britain were "net contributors to UK public finance." The "majority of them work," Sturgeon said.

In the event of a hung parliament - without a Labour or Conservative majority - the SNP could end up holding the balance of power in Westminster, if it performs as well as expected in the 59 Scottish constituencies. Sturgeon, another leader to eschew party colors in her debate-night wardrobe, also battled back against Farage's earlier claim that "English people are sick of so much of their money going over Hadrian's Wall," a reference to the wall built by the Romans in the north of England to fend off the Celts.

Picking up on Farage's reference to the "canny Scots," Sturgeon replied that the average Scot had paid "more tax per head per year" for the past three decades than citizens elsewhere in the UK. She also pointed to Scotland's free university education, saying this had helped her rise to a position of power from a working class background, arguing that no politician who had attended university for free should have the right to implement tuition fees for younger generations.

The leader of Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, struck similar policy chords to Sturgeon throughout, arguing for an end to austerity and cutbacks, saying such policies were "not inevitable."

Wood said that the last five years of policies in Westminster had brought about "so much pain for so little gain." Wood also asked Sturgeon at one point whether the SNP would fight for more government funding for Wales if it wins a meaningful voice in Westminster.

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett also lobbied for more public spending and an end to austerity, hitting key points such as bankers' bonuses and a bailout for the financial sector during the recession. She described the choice between the two main parties, the Tories and Labour, as a "choice between austerity-heavy, and austerity-light."

Foreign policy and the world at large were conspicuously absent in Thursday's UK leader's debate - save for the extended and impassioned section on immigration. None of the leaders or questions addressed issues beyond the island nation - such as the self-styled "Islamic State," Russian aggression or the future of the European Union.

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