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British leaders in round two of pre-election TV debates

Britain’s main party leaders square up for a second pre-election TV debate Thursday, with all eyes on whether Nick Clegg can repeat the star turn that won his Liberal Democrats a stunning poll surge.

Clegg outshone Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Conservatives’ David Cameron in last week’s domestic policy debate, pushing his centrist party from a distant third to pole position in some opinion polls.

But as this week’s focus switches to foreign affairs, Clegg — a former European lawmaker who speaks five languages and is married to a Spaniard — faces tougher scrutiny, particularly of his pro-European views.

“The Lib Dems are going to have a much tougher time being europhiles,” Victoria Honeyman, a politics lecturer at Leeds University, told AFP. “The British are not interested. They don’t want to be members of the eurozone”.

The debate is also likely to cover issues including the controversial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 460 Britons have died since 2001 and which Britain was led into by Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair.

Cameron will be battling to restore his reputation as premier in waiting after last week’s disappointing turn, which included a gaffe when he argued for retaining the Trident nuclear deterrent by evoking doubts about China’s future.

The Conservatives had been ahead in opinion polls for over two years going into the May 6 election.

But Britain’s emergence from recession at the end of last year and the advent of “Cleggmania” in recent days has seen their lead chipped away.

A Guardian/ICM poll Tuesday put the Tories down four points on 33 percent, the Liberal Democrats up ten to 30 percent and Labour down three on 28 percent.

Cameron is likely to come out “all guns blazing” against Clegg, Honeyman said, but must negotiate European policy with care: it has been a minefield for his party since the days of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

He will want to appear eurosceptic, but not too much so for fear of scaring off swing voters he has worked hard to cultivate, and who will be key if the Tories are to end their 13 years in opposition, she added.

The Conservatives’ decision last year to pull out of the European Parliament’s main centre-right grouping was sharply criticised by Labour, who charge that Britain under the Tories would be isolated in the 27-nation bloc.

Cameron’s party’s manifesto pledges “never” to join the euro and wants to roll back key powers from Brussels, including on justice and employment.

Brown is likely to be less hostile to Clegg, who he may need to work with in the event of a hung parliament, but also faces awkward questions about the European issue, experts say.

Labour has a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with Europe: its manifesto proclaims it is “proud” to be a “leading player” in the EU, but after three successive Labour governments, Britain is still not in the euro.

The Labour government scrapped plans for a referendum on the European constitution after France and the Netherlands rejected it in 2005 and the constitution morphed into the Lisbon Treaty.

By contrast, the Lib Dems are the most openly pro-European of the three parties, despite the strong strand of euroscepticism in British public opinion.

They want to join the euro after a referendum, though are “committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU”.

Their leader Clegg’s performance is likely to be crucial in revealing whether or not he can sustain his recent surge right up to polling day.

“The next few days could smash the mould of British politics, or prove that (Clegg’s) early success was a flash-in-the-pan, one-week campaigning wonder before the serious choice begins,” commentator Jackie Ashley wrote in the Guardian this week.