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U.K. Prime Minister Candidates Square Off over Foreign Policy

April 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Three top candidates for prime minister in Britain's tightly contested parliamentary election shared the stage to discuss foreign policy in the second of three televised political debates. Simon Marks reports from London on the political footing for the three parties ahead of the May election.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now: The British learn an American political lesson: Debates can change the momentum of a campaign.

Simon Marks fills us in from London.

DAVID CAMERON, leader, British Conservative Party: It’s clear from last week’s debate that the country wants change.

GORDON BROWN, British prime minister: So, your vote matters. Please use it. It’s the most important and decisive election for years, because our future depends on how you vote in the next few weeks.

SIMON MARKS: As Britain’s second-ever televised election debate took to the airwaves tonight, all eyes were on the leader of the country’s traditionally third-rated political party.

NICK CLEGG, leader, U.K. Liberal Democrat Party: We don’t simply need to choose from the old choices of the past. We don’t need to repeat the mistakes of the past. Don’t let anyone tell you that, this time, it can’t be different. It can.

SIMON MARKS: His name is Nick Clegg. And, until a week ago, he was a relative unknown on the national stage — not anymore. Today, he is center stage in the battle to win the country’s May 6 election and, with it, the keys to the prime minister’s office, Number 10 Downing Street.

NICK CLEGG: The more they attack each other, they more they sound exactly the same.

SIMON MARKS: It was Clegg’s firebrand performance in the first debate last week that catapulted him to prominence and threatened to overturn the political apple cart here.

For more than 100 years, British politics has been the realm of just two major parties, Labor, now in government and led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and the Conservatives, whose leader, David Cameron, was, until recently, widely tipped to win next month’s election with ease.

But Nick Clegg has complicated all that. His Liberal Democrats are now leading the election in some polls. The debate, aired by the cable network Sky News, focused on foreign policy, and that gave Gordon Brown and David Cameron an opening. They argue Clegg’s plan to abandon unilaterally Britain’s arsenal of Trident nuclear missiles would leave the country vulnerable to nuclear threats and acts of terrorism.

DAVID CAMERON: I think it’s one of the biggest decisions any prime minister would have to take. And we have got to get this right.

NICK CLEGG: President Obama said last week, I think quite rightly, that now the greatest threat to us is not the Cold War threats of old; it’s terrorists getting hold of dirty bombs. Trident isn’t going to help — isn’t going to help you with that.

GORDON BROWN: I have to deal with these decisions every day. And I say to you, Nick, get real, get real, because Iran, you’re saying, might be able to have a nuclear weapon, and you wouldn’t take action against them, but you’re saying that we have got to give up our Trident submarines and our nuclear weapon now.

NICK CLEGG: You say get real. You say get…

GORDON BROWN: Now, get real about the danger that we face if we have North Korea, Iran, and other countries with nuclear weapons if we give up our own.

NICK CLEGG: This is extraordinary. To say, get real, what is dangerous is to commit to spend a whole lot of money that we might not have on a system which almost certainly won’t help, when the world is changing, when we’re facing new threats.

SIMON MARKS: But Nick Clegg found his feet tonight when the talk turned to Afghanistan and the future of British military involvement in a war that is growing increasingly unpopular here.

NICK CLEGG: We have done it in a manner where I don’t think we have pursued the right strategy. We haven’t given the right equipment to our troops. We haven’t had proper international coordination on the ground in Afghanistan. We haven’t worked properly with other countries in the region to do so.

I think, if you put soldiers into harm’s way, you either do the job properly or you don’t — or you don’t do it at all. So, if we ever take that decision again, let’s make sure we have got the right equipment, the right strategy, so that they can come back having done the job we have asked them to do with their heads held high, knowing they have done the job well.

SIMON MARKS: Gordon Brown and David Cameron are not relying on their own political wiles to halt the advance of Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats. They’re also relying on their friends.

The front pages of Britain’s newspapers this morning were dominated by headlines attacking Nick Clegg, accusing him of committing financial irregularities, espousing radical liberal policies, and enjoying the fruits of a privileged upbringing.

ALEX STEVENSON, political analyst: British politics isn’t used to dealing with three parties.

SIMON MARKS: Political analyst Alex Stevenson says the media onslaught is no coincidence.

ALEX STEVENSON: Right-wing newspapers were so used to the idea that David Cameron’s Conservatives would be forming the next government that it’s come as a big surprise to them. So, they’re doing everything they can to level the playing field a bit.

Left-wing newspapers know that Labor have a huge battle on their hands dealing with the Conservatives. With a Lib Dem threat as well, it makes it even harder for them.

SIMON MARKS: Whether the Nick Clegg bubble will burst before the election in two weeks time is now one of the central questions in this campaign. Another is whether his own charismatic television performances will really make that much of a difference, in a system in which voters choose between local candidates for parliament, and do not directly elect the country’s prime minister.

A strong showing by Clegg and his Liberal Democrats could reshape the British political landscape, an outcome Labor and the Conservatives are urgently trying to derail.