Britain’s Cameron judged winner of election debate

BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) – Polls declared Conservative leader David Cameron the winner yesterday of a final TV debate before next week’s British election, giving him a boost going into the closing stages of the campaign.

At the start of a debate focused on the economy, Prime Minister Gordon Brown mocked himself for a high-profile campaign gaffe and stressed his record, trying to convince voters he was the man to secure future economic growth.

Britain’s three main political leaders, Brown, Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, went into the debate with surveys regularly showing that unless one of them delivers a knockout punch no party will win an outright parliamentary majority.

A Yougov poll for the top-selling Sun newspaper asking respondents who had won last night’s debate put Cameron on 41 percent, Clegg on 32 percent and Brown on 25 percent.

A ComRes poll for broadcaster ITV found 35 percent thought Cameron had won, against 33 percent for Clegg and 26 percent for Brown. A Populus survey for the Times newspaper put Cameron and Clegg neck-and-neck on 38 percent and Brown on 25 percent. An ICM poll for the Guardian newspaper was the only one not to rank Brown in last place, putting him second behind Cameron.

“It was Cameron’s best performance of the three debates and he won it narrowly from Nick Clegg,” said Simon Lee, politics lecturer at Hull University.

The run-up to the debate was overshadowed by a blaze of bad publicity for Brown after he was caught by a lapel microphone calling a supporter of his Labour Party “bigoted” on Wednesday.

Earlier polls yesterday suggested the incident had not seriously dented Labour support ahead of the May 6 election.

Brown, finance minister for a decade before he took over as prime minister in 2007, swiftly acknowledged his mistake. He warned the Conservatives’ plan to cut a record budget deficit this year risked plunging the country back into recession.

“There’s a lot to this job and as you saw yesterday I don’t get all of it right,” he said. “But I do know how to run the economy in good times and in bad. When the banks collapsed I took immediate action to stop the crisis becoming a calamity and the recession becoming a depression.” The economy is a key election issue as Britain struggles with sluggish growth and a deficit running at more than 11 percent of GDP.

Three US-style television debates, the first in British politics, have dominated campaigning, raising the profile of Clegg, whose party has in the past been in third place.

For weeks surveys have put the Conservatives in the lead but predict the Liberal Democrasts will grab enough votes to deny both traditional main parties an overall majority, an outcome not seen since 1974.

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