David Cameron and Gordon Brown fought back in the general election's second live televised debate as they tried desperately to halt Nick Clegg's bandwagon.
Amid highly personal attacks, both the Tory and Labour leaders turned their guns on the Liberal Democrat leader following his triumph in last week's first debate and his party's surge in the opinion polls.
Instant polls taken after last night's programme suggested it was much closer than last week's contest. A ComRes survey for ITV News showed that Mr Clegg retained top spot, with 33 per cent of people saying he had won; Mr Cameron and Mr Brown scored 30 per cent each. Asked how they would vote in the election, 36 per cent said Liberal Democrat, 35 percent the Tories and 24 per cent Labour. Mr Clegg was seen as the leader who gave the most honest answers last night (43 per cent), with the Tory leader on 29 per cent and the Prime Minister on 23 per cent.
However, a YouGov poll for The Sun made Mr Cameron the victor (36 per cent), with Mr Clegg on 32 per cent and Mr Brown on 29 per cent.
After a more confrontational debate than last week, Labour and Tory officials claimed that their leader had improved sharply on his performance. But neither landed a knock-out blow on Mr Clegg, whose allies said the election was now a "three-horse race".
The Liberal Democrat leader, who has faced a torrent of allegations in Tory-supporting newspapers, said: "There are people spreading fear to stop the change you want... Something really exciting is beginning to happen, people are beginning to believe, they are beginning to hope we can do something different this time."
The Liberal Democrat leader took centre stage in the studio and came under fire from left and right. Both Mr Cameron and Mr Brown spoke directly to the camera, adopting the tactic Mr Clegg used successfully last week. They tore into Liberal Democrat proposals to offer an amnesty to illegal immigrants who have been in the country for 10 years and not broken the law. The Prime Minister said the move would mean "more and more people coming into our country", while Mr Cameron said amnesties elsewhere in Europe had backfired.
Mr Clegg accused them of "being in denial" about the problem of people "living in the shadows of our economy". Mr Brown, who agreed with Mr Clegg several times in last week's first debate, directed his fire at the two other leaders equally last night. He said Mr Cameron was "a risk to the economy" because of Tory plans to cut public spending this year, while Mr Clegg was "a risk to security" because his party opposed the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system.
Some of the most lively exchanges were over MPs' expenses. Mr Cameron tried to stop the Liberal Democrats exploiting public anger over the affair by saying that MPs from all three main parties had misbehaved. In a sideswipe at Mr Clegg's own expenses, he referred to claims for "kitchens and cake tins" and said: "Don't let anyone put themselves on a pedestal." The Tory leader added: "What you are hearing from the other two is: do not trust the people." Mr Cameron launched a scathing attack on Labour election leaflets that claim the Tories would cut winter fuel allowances, free eye tests and free prescriptions for pensioners. The Tory leader denounced them as "lies", called for them to be withdrawn and told the Prime Minister: "You should not be frightening people in an election campaign." Mr Brown replied that he had not authorised the leaflets – a claim ridiculed later by the Tories, who said thousands of such leaflets had been issued by Labour.
Mr Cameron gave a guarantee that his party would maintain free eye tests. But Mr Brown said the Tories had not promised to keep the pensioners' benefits in their manifesto.
Mr Brown acknowledged his personal unpopularity but said: "If it is all about style and PR, count me out. If it is about the big decisions, if it is about delivering a better future for this country – I am your man."
Mr Cameron warned that the hung parliament suggested by the polls could leave Mr Brown in Downing Street. He said only the Tories would offer a "fresh start" after "13 years of failure".
The 90-minute debate, screened on Sky News, was devoted mainly to foreign affairs. Mr Brown said: "I'm afraid David is anti-European, Nick is anti-American and both are out of touch with reality." He said: "These two guys remind me of my two boys at bath time – squabbling."
Both Mr Brown and Mr Clegg attacked Mr Cameron's decision to pull Tory MEPs out of the European People's Party, the mainstream centre-right group in the European Parliament, and link up with "right-wing extremists". Mr Clegg said: "David Cameron has joined a bunch of nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes." Mr Brown said of the Tories: "It is the Big Society at home but Little Britain abroad."
But Mr Cameron said he wanted Britain to "be in Europe, not run by Europe," adding: "We are part of Europe, we want to co-operate and work with our allies in Europe to get things done. But we have let too many powers go from Westminster to Brussels, we have passed too much power over and we should take some back."
Mr Clegg, a former MEP and European Commission official, said: "I don't think the EU is perfect, I want it reformed, that is why I want to lead in the EU. But we are stronger together and we are weaker apart."
The exit polls
Clegg 33; Cameron 30; Brown 30
Clegg 35; Cameron; 32; Brown 23
Cameron 37; Clegg' 36 Brown 27
Cameron 36; Clegg 32; Brown 29
TV Debate - The verdicts
Michael Wager, 25, office worker for Endsleigh Insurance Services from Gloucester, voted Labour in 2005
"The debate was quicker to get going this time. David Cameron and Gordon Brown raised their games. But, on one occassion, Cameron lost his cool. He tried to attack Brown and actually forgot to make the point on free prescriptions he had intended to. Nick Clegg was surprisingly well-assured, given the events of the last week and I am increasingly keen on the Liberal Democrats. If I were to cast my vote now, it would go to their candidate."
Roger Pass, 67, retired project engineer for Land Rover from Redditch, voted Labour in 2005
"Both David Cameron and Gordon Brown made improvements on last week. Brown's opening pitch said it all: people may not like him but he has a plan. Cameron also learned from his mistakes but Nick Clegg seemed a little nervous. He tripped over his words a few times and maybe the pressure told. I would be most keen on voting Labour, if I were to vote today."
Margie Arts, 67, retired lollypop lady from Barrow-in-Furness, voted for an independent candidate in 2005
"The Labour and Conservatives leaders do not seem like they want to win this election. Nick Clegg was the only one who consistently came up with convincing answers. Nevertheless, there was an improvement from Gordon Brown, who came across more human. But I still do not trust David Cameron. I am leaning more and more towards the Liberal Democrats and, based on the debate, would vote for their candidate."
Highlights of the debate
NC "The EU is not perfect, but we can't deal with international crime on our own, with climate change, we can't regulate these wretched banks... We are stronger together and we are weaker apart."
DC "What you are hearing from the other two is do not trust the people. Do not ask them when you pass powers... to Brussels."
NC "David Cameron has joined a bunch of nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes."
GB on DC "It is the Big Society at home but Little Britain abroad."
Trident nuclear deterrent
DC "We are safer having an independent nuclear deterrent in an unsafe and uncertain world, we simply don't know what the world will look like in 40 years' time."
GB "I say to you, Nick – get real. Get real about the danger we face if we have North Korea, Iran and other countries with nuclear weapons and we give up ours."
GB to a pensioner: "Women – and you are one of them..."
DC "We need decisive government. You can see one of the problems with coalition-forming is there is a lot of bickering already."
NC "Don't believe these ludicrous scare stories about markets and political armageddon. If you decide that no one here deserves an outright majority, we'll need to talk to each other to provide the good government you deserve."
GB "It's for the voters to decide. You're the boss."
Don't vote for them
GB "David, you're a risk to the economy. Nick's a risk to our security with his nuclear weapons policy. These two guys remind me of my two boys at bath time – they are squabbling."
DC on GB "I thought all of that sounded slightly desperate."
Vote for me
GB "This may have the feel of a TV popularity contest. But in truth this is a fight for your future and your jobs. If it is all about style and PR, count me out. If it is about the big decisions, about judgement, about delivering a better future for this country – I am your man."
DC "If you vote Conservative you will get a new team running the country from May the 7th."
NC "There are people spreading fear to stop the change you want. Something really exciting is beginning to happen, people are beginning to believe, they are beginning to hope we can do something different this time. Don't let anyone tell you it can't be different. It can."