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Leaders debate - the morning after

By Felicity Spector

Updated on 23 April 2010

After last night's debate, Gordon Brown says the recovery depends on a Labour vote, the Tories hit back at Labour leaflet "slurs", and Nick Clegg calls the election "wide open".

Gordon Brown at the second leaders debate (Reuters)

Mr Brown has been insisting the general election is not a "TV popularity contest", warning today that his "novice" rivals couldn't be trusted to run the economy.

He vowed to fight "as though my life depended on it" to return a Labour government to power.

At a Labour press conference, Mr Brown responded to today's release of weak national output figures with a warning that people would be putting the country's fragil recovery at risk if they voted Conservative or Liberal Democrat.

"We are prepared to make sure there are sufficient resources in the economy for the recovery not to become a recession," he said, asserting that economic recovery depended on a majority Labour government.

The Conservatives, too, rounded on Lib Dem policy this morning, as William Hague dismissed Mr Clegg's debate performance as "weak on immigration and weak on defence".

But if this was a time for a breakthrough by the Tory leader, it did not happen. As Mr Cameron was pictured amid a group of Morris dancers in London this morning, he claimed he was "not too unhappy" about the polls - but that was hardly a ringing endorsement.

Instead the Conservatives have tried to shift their focus to accusations of dirty tactics by Labour, accusing them of lying about a series of leaflets warning people about future Tory cuts. Expect more details later, they said today, while Labour sent out Lord Mandelson to dismiss the allegations.

The Conservative education spokesman Michael Gove said this morning that Labour had been peddling these allegations against the Conservatives for years.

He went on: "Last night, for the first time, when confronted with the consequences of his lies, the prime minister said that he had not authorised these leaflets."

Mr Gove went on to ask why Gordon Brown’s parliamentary private secretary, government ministers and cabinet ministers repeated these claims in their leaflets, and wondered if they would not apologise.

After all the hot air dies down, though, is Nick Clegg still man of the hour? This morning he said he thought the election was still wide open, adding "all bets are off" about who he might side with in the event of a hung parliament.

There's still two weeks, one more debate, and an awful lot more campaigning to come before most of us actually vote.

But will any of it make any difference to where the parties stand? Or are an awful lot of people still deciding how to make up their minds?

That is one question where the opinion polls can't give an instant reaction.

Leaders debate - the morning after
Instant polls put David Cameron and Nick Clegg virtually neck and neck, with Mr Brown third but performing better than a week ago. The election result is still anyone's to call.

A total of four million viewers tuned in to watch the broadcast - hosted by Sky News - which was also shown on Sky 3 and the BBC News channel, as well as later showing at 11.30pm over on BBC2.

The encounter, on foreign policy, was much more lively than the first debate, as the leaders clashed over issues like Europe, immigration and the war in Afghanistan. And this time both Labour and the Conservatives were determined to give the Liberal Democrats a tougher time.

Nick Clegg came in for sustained questioning over his position on scrapping Trident, but he hit back, accusing Gordon Brown and David Cameron of letting Britain down over the Iraq war.

For his part, Gordon Brown called Mr Clegg "a risk to our security" while David Cameron, he said, represented "a risk to the economy".

The Lib Dems insisted their message of change was still chiming with the electorate - although surveys carried out during and immediately after the debate failed to give Mr Clegg the kind of boost which suddenly propelled him into contention last week.

Instant polls put Mr Clegg more or less neck and neck with David Cameron. And although Gordon Brown came third, his performance was also an improvement on last week.

What is clear is that Mr Brown's gruff delivery, and his requent reference to written notes, is never going to win points for style. Labour is being forced to claim this as an advantage - with campaign co-ordinator Douglas Alexander describing Nick Clegg as "a performer" who was "pretty patchy on policy".

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