British Lib Dem leader under pressure ahead of TV debate
Britain's party leaders prepped Thursday for their second pre-election television debate, with the pressure mounting on Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg after his star turn in last week's contest.
Clegg's much-praised performance opposite Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron was credited with a huge bounce in the opinion polls for his party, throwing the May 6 election race wide open.
But the change in fortunes for the Lib Dems, who normally come a distant third, has sparked renewed political attacks and media scrutiny which caused a senior party member to accuse critics of "smear" tactics.
Potentially damaging revelations emerged Thursday that Clegg had received a series of payments from party donors directly into his private bank account.
Three businessmen paid up to 250 pounds (385 dollars, 290 euros) a month during 2006, the year before Clegg became party leader in 2007, the Daily Telegraph said, citing personal bank statements submitted as part of Clegg's expenses claims in 2006.
A Liberal Democrat spokesman denied any impropriety, saying: "The donations were properly made and declared and were used to fund part of the salary of an additional member of Nick Clegg's parliamentary staff."
But the former head of a watchdog that monitors lawmakers' conduct told the Telegraph the arrangements appeared "irregular."
"Given that he's been very holier than thou about these things, it would seem he has some explaining to do to his party and the electorate," said Alistair Graham, ex-chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
British lawmakers are still struggling to repair their tarnished reputations after last year's expenses scandal, which revealed they had claimed public money to pay everything from adult films to tennis court repairs.
The Lib Dems had used the scandal to attack Labour and the Conservatives, insisting their own lawmakers had emerged largely unblemished from the affair, and home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne accused critics of "smear" tactics.
"Every single Conservative newspaper has a splash attacking Nick -- I wonder why," he told BBC radio Thursday, adding that another story about Clegg's lobbying background was "the sort of smear that we are getting in the Tory papers this morning".
The revelations heap further pressure on Clegg ahead of the television debate on Thursday night, the second of three US-style contests which have broken new ground in British elections.
This debate will focus on foreign policy, including Europe, on which the eurosceptic Conservatives are vulnerable, given their past divisions over the issue, as are the Lib Dems, who want Britain to adopt the euro.
Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will also likely feature highly in the debate, a thorny issue for Brown who has been accused of underfunding the armed forces, but also for the Tories, who supported the unpopular wars.
© 2010 AFP