British PM fails to re-ignite fading poll hopes

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Embattled British Prime Minister Gordon Brown failed to reignite his re-election hopes in a crunch TV debate, which boosted his rival David Cameron's hopes of winning power next week, polls said Friday.

Less than a week away from next Thursday's ballot, Brown battled to move on from a gaffe in which he branded a pensioner as a "bigoted woman" -- but his performance on the last of three TV debates failed to inspire.

In a sign of his ruling Labour Party upping the campaign tempo, ex-premier Tony Blair made a new appearance, backing the party's battle to cling on to power after 13 years in office.

Instant polls taken after the final US-style TV showdown Thursday night showed Brown trailing Cameron -- leader of the opposition Conservatives, by more than 10 percent, while the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg came second.

Newspaper polls Friday on voting intention also confirmed the Conservatives' lead -- a YouGov survey for the Sun had the Tories on 34 percent, Lib Dems on 28 percent and Labour on 27 percent, while an ICM poll in the Guardian had them on 35 percent, 29 percent and 27 percent respectively.

Unveiling a new campaign poster Friday, Brown acknowledged that, if opinion polls remain as they are, he could be out of power by next Friday.

"If things stay the same way, then the Conservatives and possibly the Liberals could be in a government in a coalition together," he told reporters in Birmingham, central England, where the last debate was held.

But he said: "We will continue to fight for the future of this country until the very last second of this election campaign," adding: "The time for debate has finished. The time for decision has begun."

Commentators agreed that Cameron had clearly won Thursday's debate.

"Mr. Clegg no longer looked like the new kid on the block, and Mr Brown was weighed down by the baggage of 13 years in office," said the rightwing newspaper the Daily Telegraph.

"It was Mr Cameron who looked the part."

The left-leaning Guardian also praised him: "Cameron was very assured, delivering his best debating performance when it counted most. He was optimistic, reassuring, steady."

The Tory leader repeatedly dismissed Brown's criticism of his party's policies on the economy and immigration as "tired" and "desperate" and said the Conservatives offered a fresh start after Labour's time in power.

At one point, he accused Labour of presiding over "13 years of economic failure in which inequality has got worse and deep poverty has got worse".

Brown's aides had hoped that Thursday's debate, focused on the economy, would favour the premier, credited with overseeing a decade-long boom as finance minister under Blair.

But a campaign trail blunder Wednesday left him fighting for his political life and distracted attention from the showdown.

Brown was picked up by a microphone describing 66-year-old Labour supporter Gillian Duffy as "a bigoted woman" in an angry discussion with aides after the widow challenged him on immigration.

He made no effort to hide his error as he opened the debate in Birmingham, saying: "There is a lot to this job and as you saw yesterday I don't get all of it right.

"But I do know how to run the economy, in good times and in bad," added Brown.

Meanwhile Blair, who made a speech a month ago in his former Sedgefield constituency, returned to the campaign trail with an appearance at a health centre in London.

Blair -- who handed over to Brown in 2007 following a long-running feud between the two men -- is also to campaign next week in northeast England, the Guardian reported.

© 2010 AFP

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