Conservative David Cameron will be looking for an opening to attack Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg in tonight’s second U.K. campaign debate. Prime Minister Gordon Brown stands to profit should the assault fail.
Cameron needs to find a way to use the debate to undermine Clegg, whose support surged after last week’s first round, without turning off previously undecided voters attracted by the Liberal Democrat’s promise of “new politics.”
“Cameron has got to stop Clegg or else he loses,” said Roger Mortimore, head of political and electoral research at London-based polling company Ipsos Mori. “The really tricky question is how far can he safely go in attacking Clegg’s credibility? Get the tone wrong and it will look like proof of everything Clegg is saying.”
Clegg’s gains may prevent the Conservatives from winning the swing seats held by Brown’s Labour Party they need to take power in the May 6 election. Some polls indicate that Labour may still emerge as the largest party in Parliament, while short of a majority, as Cameron and Clegg split the opposition vote.
Such a result may roil markets because a divided government would be too weak to narrow a record budget deficit, some economists say. The pound slumped 1 percent in the two days after the debate last week. It has lost 4.8 percent against the dollar this year and traded at $1.5370 at 1:53 p.m. in London.
The debate in Bristol, southwest England, starts at 8 p.m. local time and will be broadcast on Sky TV and BBC Radio 4.
‘Attack the Conservatives’
Brown’s approach in tonight’s debate, which focuses on foreign and defense policy, will be to “keep repeating the mantra that this is a crisis we’re in, and don’t let the other lot mess it up,” said Andrew Hawkins, the chairman of London-based polling company ComRes Ltd. “He’s got to do as much as he can to boost the Lib Dems and as much as possible to attack the Conservatives.”
Brown, 59, argues that Conservative plans to reverse a payroll-tax increase and cut spending this year would damage the economy just as it emerges from recession.
Cameron, 43, has to win votes from the Liberal Democrats in Labour-held seats and take seats directly from Clegg’s party to accumulate the 117 extra lawmakers the Conservatives need for a majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.
That is looking increasingly unlikely. The Liberal Democrats overtook Labour to move into second place in most polls, and into first in some. Pollsters say most of Clegg’s new backers come from those who hadn’t previously made up their minds.
‘Off His Pedestal’
“The pressure is on Cameron because he was knocked off his pedestal last week and he needs to win,” Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters in Bristol. “Either Clegg carries on and knocks out Cameron or Cameron bounces back.”
An Ipsos Mori poll in yesterday’s Evening Standard newspaper put support for both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at 32 percent, with Labour at 28 percent. That would still leave Labour with 270 lawmakers to the Conservatives’ 244, the Standard said. Ipsos Mori questioned 1,253 people over three days ending April 20. No margin of error was given.
In the April 15 debate, Clegg, 43, labeled Cameron and Brown as representatives of the “old politics,” telling viewers: “The more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.”
Today, Clegg came under attack from two Conservative-supporting newspapers, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, with stories questioning his personal integrity and patriotism. The Mail, under the headline “Clegg in Nazi Slur on Britain,” cited an article he wrote in 2002 about British people’s continuing animosity toward Germany in which he criticized their “misplaced sense of superiority.”
Party contributors made payments of 250 pounds ($385) directly into Clegg’s bank account in 2006 before he became leader in 2007, the Telegraph reported, citing documents. Clegg denied any wrongdoing and said the payments from three friends were to pay a member of staff and were properly declared.
“Any insinuation or suggestion that I personally did something wrong is seriously out of order and I’m going to publish the figures to prove it,” Clegg told reporters in Bristol. “There are lots of people who want to block change and I think I must be the first politician who’s gone from being Churchill to being a Nazi in under a week. I hope people won’t be bullied into not choosing something different.”
Labour Business Secretary Peter Mandelson told BBC Radio 4 that the newspaper stories were ““straight out of the Tory party dirty tricks manual.”
“These things do not happen at the drop of a hat,” Mandelson said. “They are classic smears of the sort we’ve seen directed against Labour in many general elections but now this Tory treatment is being given to the Liberal Democrats.”
Asked about Mandelson’s comments, Cameron said on his way into the debate venue in Bristol that he was concentrating entirely on the positive, and looking forward to tonight’s debate, BBC television reported.
Yesterday’s Ipsos Mori poll offers some comfort to Cameron. Forty-nine percent said they may change their minds, the highest level since the company began asking the question in 1983. And Liberal Democrat voters were most likely to say so, with 56 percent saying they might, compared with 40 percent of Conservative and 50 percent of Labour voters.
“They’ve made their decision on the basis of a 90-minute television program,” said Hawkins. “We know they don’t understand their policies or what they’re voting for.”
A YouGov Plc poll this week showed 55 percent of those backing the Liberal Democrats oppose party proposals to cede more powers to the European Union, while 53 percent oppose ditching the pound for the euro when conditions are right, a policy the party also supports.
In tonight’s 90-minute debate, all three leaders may face difficult questions on foreign-policy issues.
Brown apologized earlier this year after giving Parliament incorrect figures on funding for troops in Afghanistan and was finance minister when Britain went to war with the U.S. in Iraq.
Cameron was criticized by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, traditional allies of his party, for pulling the Conservatives out of their bloc in the European Parliament, a move which Labour has used against them.
‘Not Isolating Ourselves’
“We must invest for the future,” Brown said in a speech to workers at a factory near Bristol. “We must do it by working with our European partners and not isolating ourselves from the European Union.”
Clegg has drawn fire from the Conservatives for a pledge to scrap the submarine-based Trident nuclear-missile program, saying defense priorities have changed.
The Conservative leader benefits from a lower burden of expectations in this debate than he did last time, analysts said.
“For the second debate, with the history of winning the first one, expectations are raised for Clegg,” said Andrew Russell, who teaches politics at Manchester University. “He needs to consolidate.”