London: The British electorate remains confused about selecting their next prime minister as the first TV debate prior to the general election on May 7 failed to deliver a clear verdict on leading contenders, Prime Minister David Cameron and Opposition leader Ed Miliband.
A YouGov “First Verdict” survey for The Times suggested that 51 percent of the viewers thought Prime Minister Cameron had performed better, with 49 percent choosing Labour leader Miliband. This is equivalent to 290 seats for Conservatives and 289 for Labour in the 650-member Parliament.
The Eton-educated prime minister scored well ahead of his rival on leadership and economy but Labour strategists say that Miliband’s standing with voters has increased with the TV coverage and more undecided voters are now leaning toward the Labour leader, the Asian Lite newspaper based in London reported.
Answering a series of questions posed by former BBC Newsnight journalist Jeremy Paxman and a studio audience in the contest broadcast by Sky and Channel 4, the leaders unveiled their policies before the voters. Tied in the polls (33 percent), both are acutely aware that even a small gaffe could turn the results on May 7.
The programme is the first in a series of television events. The prime minister has agreed to a seven-way debate on April 2, but shunned a direct confrontation with Miliband.
During the first debate, Cameron said he had turned around the economy and asked for a chance to “finish the job” of clearing the deficit. But he struggled with questions about food banks and whether he could live on a zero-hours contract. After avoiding it three times, he finally said: “No, I couldn’t live on one of those.”
When Cameron came to power in 2010, there were only 66 food banks and the country now has over 400 which serve free food items to 900,000 citizens. Paxman said this was a shame for a developed country like Britain.
The prime minister “fully admitted” that he had not met a “no ifs, no buts” promise to reduce net migration to below 100,000. But he tried to salvage his reputation by arguing about the measures to prevent the benefit tourists from European Union (EU) countries to exploit British social services.
Cameron promised to serve “every day of a second term” if he remained in No. 10, Downing Street, disputing that by ruling out a third term he meant he could leave after just two years to pave the way for London Mayor Boris Johnson, Chancellor George Osborne or Home Secretary Theresa May.
The Labour leader who won the toss to appear second had the advantage to warm up. But he was stumped with a question on whether he thought Britain was “full” before refusing to set a limit on immigration.
Miliband also evaded a question on whether the last Labour administration “borrowed too much” and “spent too much.”
He defended his decision to stand against his brother David Miliband with the support of Britain’s notorious Labour-affiliated trade unions to win the leadership. He claimed the rift with his brother was “healing”.
“It was strained, not surprisingly,” he added before Kay Burley, the moderator, said: “Your poor mum.”
The Labour leader tried to counter a reputation for being weird, suggesting that he “wouldn’t win a contest eating a bacon sandwich”. Asked if he was not tough enough, he cited voting against missile strikes on Syria, when he resisted pressure from US President Barack Obama. “Am I tough enough, hell yes I am,” he said.
With the polls at a stalemate, both major parties are struggling to win the confidence of undecided voters. The stage is now set for the April 2 seven-way debate on ITV. Senior British journalist Julie Etchingham will be the moderator.
The British electorate is now eagerly waiting for the seven-way race between the prime minister and the opposition leader along with others from Liberal Democrats, Eurosceptic UKIP , Scottish Nationalist Party, Green Party and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru.