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Party leaders in final clash as Britain faces poll limbo

The spectre of a hung parliament will hang over a final leaders’ TV debate before the British election, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown makes a last-ditch bid to woo voters before polls next week.

The theme of Thursday’s showdown is the economy, which backers say should favour Brown, who was finance minister for a decade under Tony Blair and won praise as leader for his handling of the efforts to bail out banks.

But instead of concentrating on persuading voters that they can reduce Britain’s record public deficit, Brown’s Labour Party and David Cameron’s Conservatives have had to re-focus their campaigns to face up to Nick Clegg.

Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has emerged as the surprise star of a campaign that is threatening to re-shape Britain’s political landscape into a genuine three-party system in the first hung parliament for 36 years.

Opinion polls show the Lib Dems could split the vote for the big two parties to such an extent that neither will win an overall majority — making them crucial to the formation of a coalition government.

Some polls show they could even receive the second-largest number of votes, although under Britain’s first-past-the-post system, they are certain to be ranked third in numbers of seats won.

The fresh-faced Clegg’s surge in support can be almost wholly attributed to his strong performance in the first two TV debates, which are being used in a British general election for the first time.

As Brown said, when asked to explain the “Clegg Effect”, “he’s a good debater and a lot of people will be meeting him for the first time”.

Clegg is now coming under increasing pressure to reveal what he would do if his party holds the balance of power after the May 6 election.

The Conservatives have turned on Clegg, fearful that he could contrive to keep Labour in power by agreeing to share power with them.

The next stage in the Tories’ attack is likely to be scrutiny of the Lib Dems’ economic policies during Thursday’s debate, to be shown on the BBC.

Britain only emerged from its deepest recession in history at the end of last year, but has been saddled with a massive public deficit.

The latest growth figures underlined the fragility of the recovery — gross domestic product only increased by 0.2 percent in the first quarter of this year, a lower rate than expected.

Labour argues that Tory pledges to save six billion pounds (6.9 billion euros, 9.2 billion dollars) in 2010 will take money out of the economy just when growth needs to be nurtured.

In fact, the plans put forward by all three parties to raise taxes and cut public spending to scale back the public deficit were criticised by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) on Tuesday.

It found that Conservative proposals to get rid of “the bulk” of the deficit during the next parliament would involve the biggest spending cuts since World War II.

The IFS calculated that although the plans of Labour and the Lib Dems would have a less drastic impact, they would still require the deepest cuts since the 1970s.

Crucially for Thursday’s debate, the independent body said none of the parties had come “anywhere close” to identifying where the axe would fall.

The Tories, for example, have pledged to make their savings by “eliminating waste”, without giving specific details.

Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University, said Brown’s ability to impress voters in the final debate should not be discounted.

In the first two debates, “Gordon Brown came out much better than has generally been argued because he had a much stronger grasp of substance than the other two,” he told AFP.

The final debate will be the “most important of all”, he said. “Given it’s on the economy which is a central issue for most voters, it will be very important indeed and could swing a lot of voters.”