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Britain’s election race tightens after second TV debate

Britain’s election race tightened Friday as a second television debate between party leaders failed to produce a runaway winner, increasing the chances of a hung parliament.

All eyes were on Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in Thursday night’s debate after his victory in last week’s clash propelled his party out of their traditional third position.

He managed to fend off verbal attacks from Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron, scoring a narrow victory after the leaders traded blows on issues including Europe and nuclear weapons.

The results from early polls were close, however, and suggested that the May 6 general election would be a closely fought three-way battle.

They increase the likelihood that the vote would produce Britain’s first hung parliament — where no party has an overall majority — since 1974.

After the nervous start to last week’s debate, the gloves came off quickly in the second clash on Sky News television which focused on foreign affairs.

Clegg faced a two-pronged attack from Brown and Cameron over his party’s opposition to renewing Britain’s Trident nuclear submarine programme, which he said was a relic of the Cold War.

“I say to you Nick ‘get real, get real’, because Iran, you are saying, might be able to have a nuclear weapon and you wouldn’t take action against them,” said Brown.

To laughs from the audience, Cameron added: “I have never uttered these words but ‘I agree with Gordon’. You cannot take a risk with this.”

The leaders also clashed over Europe, when Brown and Clegg rounded on Cameron for his decision to withdraw his party’s European lawmakers from the centre-right European People’s Party.

Brown said he was aligning himself with “right-wing extremists”, while Clegg said the Tory leader was working with “nutters, anti-Semites.”

Cameron however claimed both his opponents had let Brussels take too many powers away from London.

“What you are hearing from the other two is, frankly, do not trust the people. Do not ask them when you pass powers from Westminster to Brussels,” he said.

The leaders were also asked if they thought a coalition government — the possible outcome of a hung parliament — was the way forward for Britain.

Clegg, who could hold the balance of power, spoke positively of such an outcome, telling the audience: “People are beginning to hope that we can do something different this time.”

He also dismissed as “rubbish” accusations of wrongdoing after a story in the Daily Telegraph paper revealed that three businessmen paid up to 250 pounds a month into his bank account in 2006, a year before he became party leader.

Meanwhile Cameron reiterated his view that a hung parliament would be a bad result, saying: “I think we do need decisive government to take some of the difficult decisions for the long term.”

An average of five surveys gave Clegg a narrow lead — on 33.4 percent — but only slightly ahead of Cameron, who was on 32.8 percent. Brown meanwhile scored 27.6 percent.

These figures would not translate directly into seats, however, because of the skewed nature of Britain’s electoral system.

The right-wing press praised Cameron for making a comeback after a disappointing performance last week, but admitted he had not delivered a knock-out blow to throw Clegg off course.

“How ironic that he championed these debates, and yet they are sucking the life out of him and into Nick Clegg,” wrote the Daily Telegraph’s deputy editor, Benedict Brogan.

The left-leaning Guardian added: “The debates suggest that the dynamics of the campaign have been transformed, and there will not be a reversion to two-party politics.”

The Times concluded that “Nick Clegg and David Cameron gave assured performances”, although said Brown “sounded like a man convinced that things could only get worse”.