SIMON MARKS: It was a moment in British political history, the three leaders of Britain’s major political parties battling it out in the race to head the next government here, appearing in the country’s first-ever U.S. presidential-style televised debate, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, seeking another five years in office for his governing labor party, hoping to scupper his plans, David Cameron, leader of the opposition conservatives, and the youthful Nick Clegg of the Centrist Liberal Democrats, trying to thrust the country’s third-ranked party to the fore.
MAN: Our final question of this evening.
SIMON MARKS: The debate occurred in front of an invited, politically-balanced audience, some of whose members asked pre-selected questions, and, though it was modeled on U.S. presidential debates, took place in a country governed by a parliamentary system.
Voters here choose which local candidates to represent them in the British parliament. They don’t vote directly for the national leaders. But, tonight, it was the national leaders who were projecting their parties’ views, predominantly on domestic affairs, and projecting a vigorous disagreement over how to deal with the country’s budget deficit.
GORDON BROWN, British prime minister: We say it’s so important for our country that, while we cut the deficit, we will maintain our investment in education per pupil.
Now, the conservatives cannot say this. And I think we need an answer this evening. Again, it’s the risk, the risk to our health service, the risk in crime if you have less police. Now it’s the risk to education. And I say it’s a risk too far if you cut teaches and teacher assistants.
DAVID CAMERON, leader, U.K. Conservative Party: What Gordon Brown isn’t telling you is that he’s putting up national insurance contributions on every single job in 2011. The biggest cost schools have is teachers.
So, he’s going to be taking money out of every single school in the country, primary school, secondary school, F.E. college. We say, stop the waste in government now, so we can stop the lion’s share of that national insurance increase, that jobs tax next year. That’s the best way to make sure we keep the money going into the schools.
MAN: Mr. Clegg?
NICK CLEGG, leader, U.K. Liberal Democrat Party: I’m not sure if you like me, but the more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same.
NICK CLEGG: Look, we all know we have got this great black hole in our public finances. That’s obvious. We know that we’re going to have to save money. We all know that we’re going to have to make cuts.
The question at this election is, who is trying to be straight with you about the scale of those cuts, how long they will take.
SIMON MARKS: And while the debate was supposed to focus on domestic issues, a question about pay and conditions in the British army quickly led to discussion about conditions for the armed forces serving in Afghanistan.
DAVID CAMERON: But, frankly, we shouldn’t be in the situation we are. In the last few months, we had to fight a battle in parliament to stop the government cutting the training for the territorial army. And I think it’s madness.
NICK CLEGG: It’s not only that we have got to make sure that we don’t waste money on bureaucrats and the Ministry of Defense and all the rest of it, and instead spend that on equipment for our brave servicemen and servicewomen.
We should also use the know-how and the manufacturing brilliance and expertise in this country to provide our brave soldiers with the equipment which saves lives.
GORDON BROWN: I would say, with the chief of defense staff, who said himself we are the best-equipped armed forces in our history as a result of the action we have taken.
I’m not complacent. I want to do more. But we have put the helicopters in. We have put the vehicles in. And we are giving our troops the equipment we need.
WOMAN: Thank you.
SIMON MARKS: The debate was the most dramatic event yet in a campaign marked by volatile opinion polls and apparent voter apathy.
One British voter in two told opinion pollsters they plan to watch tonight’s debate, which was shown on the country’s main commercial television network, and simulcast on national radio here. But Britain’s political commentators are mixed about the debate’s likely impact on voter attitudes, ahead of the May 6 election.
Some believe the debates could be decisive in an election that, polls suggest, remains up for grabs.
MAN: Attacks on every business on the country.
SIMON MARKS: Others argue the electorate is used to seeing boisterous daily interactions in Parliament between Britain’s political leaders, and fear that the ’76 debate rules painstakingly negotiated by the political parties themselves will force the politicians to deliver scripted, stilted performances that fail to sway the undecided.
That did not appear to be the case tonight. The debate was a fast-moving affair that saw enormous amounts of interaction between the three leaders on a wide range of subjects. They will get two more televised opportunities to inspire voters. Next week, they will debate foreign affairs, and the third and final encounter will tackle the economy.
It’s expected to be the central issue when voters go to the polls after a campaign lasting just one month that culminates in election day three weeks from today.