Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservatives, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat chief Nick Clegg fielded questions at Leeds Town Hall in northern England Thursday, in a bid to win over voters ahead of an election polls say is too close to call.
The leaders didn’t trade blows with each other in the BBC’s “Question Time” program, but were battered by hard-hitting questions from an audience selected to include supporters of all three parties, as well as undecided voters.
Questioners said Cameron couldn’t be trusted to preserve Britain’s health and welfare systems and accused him of lying about cutting immigration. Miliband was charged with being economically reckless and lying about the previous Labour government’s spending.
Clegg was asked how he could ever be trusted again, after reneging on a 2010 election pledge to abolish university tuition charges. He went into government with the Conservatives and tripled the fees.
“Got it wrong, I said sorry,” Clegg said, in a tone of contrition adopted by all three politicians.
Neither Labour nor the Conservatives appears to have the support to win a majority in the House of Commons in the May 7 election, while the Lib Dems look set to lose half their seats. Some form of coalition government appears likely.
The leaders tried to inject some certainty to the most uncertain election in decades, outlining the “red lines” they would not cross in government. For Cameron, it was an in-out referendum on European Union membership, which he has promised to hold by 2017.
“I will not lead a government that does not deliver that (referendum) pledge,” Cameron said.
Miliband, the Labour leader was repeatedly attacked by invited voters for denying that the last government had helped to plunge Britain into recession.
He faced accusations that his economic record was like a “millstone around his neck” as he was subjected to a series of hostile questions from the BBC Question Time audience.
Asked directly by a member of the audience if the last government had “overspent”, Miliband said: “No, I don’t”.
Members of the audience said that they could not “trust” him as prime minister if he would not accept his economic failings as part of the last Labour government and he was urged to sack Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor.
Senior Conservatives were on Thursday night hoping that the testy exchanges which ended with a surprised looking Labour leader stumbling as he walked off the stage, will finally mark a turning point in the election campaign.
Miliband vowed that a center-left government led by him would cut spending to get the deficit down and “live within our means.”
And he ruled out in firm terms a coalition or deal with the separatist Scottish National Party, which looks set to win most of the seats in Scotland.
“I am not going to sacrifice the future of our country, the unity of our country,” Miliband said.
As the campaign enters its final week, British newspapers began to dole out political endorsements. The Financial Times and the Economist both said a continuation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that has governed since 2010 was in Britain’s best interests.
Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid Sun urged voters to back the Conservatives, unless they’re in Scotland. There, it said, they should vote for the Scottish National Party.
The differing endorsements raised a few eyebrows, since the London-based Sun dubbed nationalists “saboteurs” determined to wreck Britain.
But the Scottish edition which has a separate editor said the SNP would “fight harder for Scotland’s interests” and praised leader Nicola Sturgeon as “a phenomenon.” Its front page depicted her as Princess Leia from “Star Wars.”
Murdoch’s newspapers were long a powerful force in British politics, but their influence may be waning in the Internet age.