A YouGov snapshot following the 90-minute head-to-head in Birmingham placed the Conservative leader well ahead on 41 points, Nick Clegg on 32 and Mr Brown well back on 25 while a Comres survey had the leaders on 35, 33 and 26 respectively.
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Under enormous pressure following his campaign gaffe when he branded Rochdale pensioner Gillian Duffy a “bigot”, the Labour leader referred only once to the incident during the debate, saying: “As you saw yesterday I don’t always get it right.” Looking determined, Mr Brown began by addressing the camera directly, declaring: “I’m the one to fight for your future” but much of his strategy rested on raising fears about his opponents’ policies.
Mr Cameron insisted Labour represented “more of the same” and the Liberal Democrats “uncertainty” while only an outright Tory victory could deliver “a clean break, taking our country in the right direction and bringing the change we need”.
Mr Clegg, who lumped his opponents together as representing the “old politics”, urged voters not to be frightened of choosing “something really different”.
Mr Brown warned: “Things are too important to be left to risky policies under these two people. They are not ready for government because they have not thought through their policies.”
Earlier, the leaders clashed on the economy. The PM insisted other leading countries agreed with Labour that to withdraw money from the economy now, as the Conservatives proposed, would risk a double-dip recession.
However, the Tory leader claimed the economy was “stuck in a rut” and stressed how “every business leader” supported his party’s line of cutting £6bn in Whitehall waste this year to avoid the National Insurance rise, which he branded a “jobs tax”. He accused Mr Brown of confusing the Government with the economy.
Mr Clegg said the argument needed to move “beyond this political point-scoring” and that what was needed was to put “fairness” at the heart of the recovery plan to win the nation’s support and he cited his party’s big idea of raising personal allowances to £10,000, saving most people £700 a year, as a fair tax cut.
Mr Cameron came under joint fire from his opponents on his inheritance tax proposals with Mr Brown branding them as “unfair and immoral”. However, the Tory leader hit back, saying the Labour leader’s attack was “desperate stuff from someone who is in a desperate state”, saying the Conservatives’ inheritance tax policy was meant to allow middle income families to pass on their homes to their children.
The most heated exchanges came on immigration with Mr Cameron denouncing what he said was the Lib Dem “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, that could bring in up to 1.2m people. He said it was “profoundly misguided” and would simply make “a bad situation worse”. Mr Clegg retaliated by accusing the Tory leader of issuing “misleading” claims and told his opponents to “get real” that illegal, law-abiding immigrants who had been in Britain for 10 years should be able to earn their citizenship.
Following the debate, the Tory leader addressed a rally of party supporters, telling them not to waste a minute up to polling day. “This country is crying out for change.”
When asked afterwards if Mr Brown had won, Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, conspicuously failed to say yes and simply noted that that would become clear on polling day.
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ economics spokesman, insisted: “Labour seem to be out of it,” claiming the election was now a two-horse race between his party and the Tories.
Liam Fox, the Shadow Defence Secretary, said his leader had “by far his best and clearest performance” while Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, argued Mr Clegg had been the victor from the debates because “he was allowed to take part” while Mr Brown was the clear loser.