Election 2010: Gloves off in second leaders' debate
Leaders discuss relations with EU - Sky News Leaders' Debate
The gloves came off in the second prime ministerial debate as Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg clashed over global affairs.
In fiery exchanges, the three leaders locked horns on Europe, climate change, tax, nuclear weapons and sleaze.
Mr Brown and Mr Cameron agreed less with Mr Clegg than last week and instead stressed policy differences.
BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson said all three performed well and it proved "we are in a tight three horse race".
Opinion polls taken immediately after the debate gave conflicting verdicts over whether Mr Cameron or Mr Clegg came out on top but they agreed that the margins between all three contenders were much tighter than in the first debate.
But BBC polling expert David Cowling said there had been a significant drop in the number of people who thought Mr Clegg won, with Mr Brown having the most improved ratings.
The debate itself was livelier than last week, with flashes of anger from Mr Cameron in particular as he accused Labour of spreading "lies" about Tory policy on benefits for the elderly in election leaflets, telling Mr Brown he should be "ashamed" of them.
At several points, both Mr Cameron and Mr Brown attempted to take a leaf out of Nick Clegg's book by pointing to the squabbling of the other two.
But they avoided saying "I agree with Nick" in an effort to win the Lib Dem leader over and at one point Mr Cameron even said "I agree with Gordon" over nuclear weapons.
Mr Brown made a point of attacking Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg equally, rounding off his closing statement by telling his two rivals: "Nick you would leave us weak, David you would leave us isolated in Europe."
I think it's quite an insult that we were not represented in that debate
But the Labour leader's main pitch was to tell voters anything other than a Labour majority risked damaging the economy, telling voters: "Don't do anything that puts this economic recovery at risk."
Mr Cameron said Mr Brown sounded "desperate" and accused him of "trying to frighten people". In his closing statement, he said Britain needed a "clean break from 13 years of failure".
Mr Clegg, who was the last to deliver a closing statement, sought to strike an optimistic note, saying "people are beginning to hope that we can do something different this time" and "if we do things differently we can be a force for good in the world".
The three leaders began by calling each other by their first names, but as the debate developed Mr Clegg in particular started calling his rivals by their full names when he addressed them.
Mr Clegg said he believed it was time for a "fundamental debate" on Europe and said "of course there are daft rules, of course it does daft things but it seems to me that we punch above our weight when you stand together in Europe".
Mr Brown said he was determined to work with the "sensible" people in Europe, and accused Mr Cameron of aligning himself with "right-wing extremists" after pulling his MEPs out of the main centre-right European People's Party grouping.
But the Tory leader said it would have been "hypocritical" to stay in the EPP.
Mr Clegg weighed in by accusing Mr Cameron of working with "nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes".
Mr Brown accused his two rivals of behaving like "my two boys at bath time - they are squabbling," gaining him the first laugh of the evening.
He went on: "I am afraid David is anti-European, Nick is anti- American. Both of them are out of touch with reality."
Mr Cameron hit back: "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.
"Just give in to everything that comes out of Brussels and do not stand up for your country."
Mr Clegg came under attack from his two rivals over his proposal to include Britain's Trident nuclear deterrent in the strategic defence review which all three parties have promised to hold after the election.
The Lib Dem leader cited a group of retired generals who have warned that replacing Trident could take money away from frontline troops and that US President Barack Obama had identified the threats of the future as terrorism and failed states.
But Mr Brown told him: "I have to deal with these issues every day and I say to you, Nick, get real."
Mr Cameron agreed with the Labour leader, arguing "we are safer having an independent nuclear deterrent in an unsafe world ... a proper replacement for Trident."
There was also lively debate over immigration policy, with Mr Clegg denying he wanted an "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and facing claims from Mr Cameron that his plan for regional targets did not make sense. Mr Cameron faced a similar claim from Mr Brown about his plan for an annual cap on immigration.
Turning to the war in Afghanistan, Mr Clegg said the government had not pursued the right strategy or given the right equipment to British troops.
Mr Brown said British troops were in Afghanistan because there was a "chain of terror" linking al-Qaeda groups across the world to action which could happen in the UK.
The leaders also clashed over cleaning-up politics, with Mr Brown saying he was "ashamed" of the way MPs had behaved and Mr Cameron said no party should put itself on a pedestal over expenses.
But the Tory leader insisted there should not be voting reform to get rid of the first-past-the-post system.
"Don't let us give up the way you can sack your government and throw them out, let us not have permanent hung Parliaments."
Mr Clegg urged young people to register to vote, saying they could make it the "most exciting election in a very long time".
Asked about the Daily Telegraph's allegations during the televised leaders' debate, Mr Clegg said: "It's a complete nonsense story... complete rubbish."
The leaders were also quizzed about what they would do in the event of a hung Parliament, with Mr Clegg urging voters to ignore "ludicrous scare stories" about meltdown in the financial markets.
Anti-war protesters were involved in a stand-off with police outside the venue in Bristol which hosted the debate. Six people were arrested for public order offences.
A number of opinion polls placed the Lib Dems ahead of Labour and gaining on the Conservatives after last week's prime ministerial TV debate. Others, such as the YouGov/Sun survey of 20 April, have even put the Lib Dems in first place.
Where's the change when the three Westminster leaders tonight, Cameron, Brown and Clegg, were as one in their support for continuing a war in Afghanistan
It has increased speculation that the general election on 6 May will result in a hung parliament - polls suggest the Conservatives are still slightly ahead but would not have enough seats to get an overall majority.
Thursday's debate was held at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, hosted by Sky's political editor Adam Boulton.
Ahead of the debate the BBC Trust rejected a joint appeal from the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties against the BBC's decision to exclude them from the prime ministerial debates - separate leaders' debates are being held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Plaid Cymru's Adam Price branded the prime ministerial debate a "farce", saying: "Where's the choice? Where's the change when the three Westminster leaders tonight, Cameron, Brown and Clegg, were as one in their support for continuing a war in Afghanistan - a war with no end in sight and which has cost us dearly in lives and in funds?"
Angus Robertson, for the SNP, said: "If people in Scotland want to avoid the exclusion of Scottish interest which we saw on display again tonight, the only mention of Scotland came once when the prime minister talked about the weather, that is simply not good enough."
UK Independence Party MEP Nigel Farage, said there had not been a "proper debate about the European Union in this election campaign."
Mr Farage, who campaigns for Britain to leave the EU, said: "Was that it? A ten-minute debate in the entire general election campaign about the institution that now makes 75% of our laws. And what we saw was total agreement that we must be part of the European Union."
Green Party deputy leader Adrian Ramsay said the debate showed the three main parties were "not taking climate change seriously."
Simon Darby, of the British National Party, also complained about the lack of debate on the EU: "There wasn't anybody there suggesting we should remove ourselves from the European Union. On the question on the war in Afghanistan, they are all in favour of the war in Afghanistan. We shouldn't be there."
The English Democrats, who campaign for an English Parliament, said the debate was a "no score" draw for England: "Roll on a hung parliament with representatives from the English Democrats to stand up for England, like the SNP stand up for Scotland."
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