Cameron Failure to Top Clegg Signals Hung Parliament

David Cameron, leader of the U.K. Conservative Party
David Cameron, leader of the U.K. Conservative Party, center, gestures during an election rally at Varndean College, Brighton, on April 19, 2010. Photographer: Andrew Parsons via Bloomberg

Conservative David Cameron failed to derail Nick Clegg in the U.K. campaign’s second debate, four instant polls showed, pointing to a hung parliament with Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party as the largest bloc.

In a 90-minute televised debate, Brown, 59, compared his 43-year-old opponents to children “squabbling at bathtime.” Cameron, who led polls until Clegg’s surge after last week’s debate, said a government without a majority would prevent “decisive action” to narrow a record budget deficit. Clegg dismissed such warnings as “ludicrous scare stories.”

Of four surveys released immediately after the event, two showed Clegg won and a pair favored Cameron. That suggests the debate will produce little change in polls on the overall race in coming days. Most since last week show Labour winning a plurality of seats in the May 6 election.

“It would have been a game-changer if Clegg had crashed and burned,” said Justin Fisher, professor of politics at Brunel University in London. “Clegg held up better than I thought he would. He won’t fall back to his pre-debate levels” -- about 10 points below where he is now.

A YouGov Plc daily poll before last night’s debate put the Conservatives at 34 percent and Labour at 29 percent, with the Liberal Democrats at 28 percent. That would leave Labour with 278 seats to 251 for the Conservatives and 88 for the Liberal Democrats, according to the standard calculations used by academics and pollsters. YouGov questioned 1,576 people April 21 and yesterday. No margin of error was given.

Pound Weakens

Such a result may roil markets because a divided government would be too weak to fix Britain’s finances, some economists say. The pound slumped 1 percent in the two days after the debate last week. The currency was little changed today, slipping 0.1 percent to $1.5366 at 10:45 a.m. in London. It has lost 4.9 percent against the dollar this year.

The U.K. economy grew half as much as economists forecast in the first quarter, the Office of National Statistics reported today. Gross domestic product rose 0.2 percent from the final three months of 2009, when a 0.4 percent expansion ended the recession, the agency said.

Brown said the slower growth rate shows the risk to the economy of the Conservatives’ proposed spending cuts this year. The opposition’s Treasury spokesman, George Osborne, said Brown’s policies aren’t working and have resulted in a “jobless recovery.”

‘Like Me or Not’

In last night’s debate, Brown, whose party has controlled the government since 1997, addressed his own unpopularity.

“Like me or not, I can deliver,” he said. He later told his opponents: “David, you’re a risk to the economy, Nick is a risk to our security.”

Brown told Clegg to “get real” and stop opposing nuclear weapons. He criticized Cameron over his European policy and economic policies.

“Iran, you’re saying, might be able to have a nuclear weapon and you wouldn’t take action against them, but you’re also saying give up our Trident submarines,” Brown told Clegg on the stage of an arts center in Bristol. “Get real about the danger we face if we have North Korea, Iran and other countries with nuclear weapons and we give up our own.”

Clegg opposes updating Britain’s submarine-based Trident missile system. Brown said Cameron’s “anti-Europeanism becomes more and more obvious as this debate goes on.”

‘In Europe’

Cameron said he wanted to be “in Europe but not run by Europe.”

Cameron made some direct attacks on Clegg, at one point taking on the Liberal Democrat leader’s claim that his party had escaped censure following disclosures that scores of lawmakers were reimbursed with taxpayer money for personal expenses.

“Frankly, Nick, we all had problems with this,” the Conservative said. “Don’t let’s anyone put themselves on a pedestal.”

Clegg criticized Cameron over his decision to end the Conservatives’ alliance in the European Parliament with the parties of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Conservatives joined with eastern European parties that include Latvia’s For Fatherland and Freedom, which has come under fire from academics for its links to Latvians who fought with the Nazi SS in World War II.

‘Bunch of Nutters’

Clegg described the Conservatives’ allies as “a bunch of nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes.”

All three changed their debating tactics, switching away from last week’s emphasis on anecdotes about voters they’d met in the campaign. Brown and Cameron both copied Clegg’s technique from the previous debate of addressing the camera directly, rather than the studio audience.

“David Cameron made a really concerted attempt to highlight the differences between the three parties, and how hard it would be to reach agreement in a hung Parliament,” said Jane Green, a lecturer in politics at Manchester University. “But I was surprised he didn’t make more of the message that a vote for Clegg is a vote for Brown.”

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