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Britain's debate: lively, substantive, revealing

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, April 16, 2010; 11:45 AM

People overseas often lament the Americanization of their politics, but Thursday's introduction of presidential-style debates in Britain ought to put some of those complaints to rest. The first televised debate in the history of British election campaigns was lively, substantive and revealing.

The three candidates -- Prime Minister and Labor Party leader Gordon Brown, Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg -- have tangled regularly during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in Parliament.

But put before an audience of voters in a television studio, rather than in the midst of braying politicians in the House of Commons, their demeanor changed quickly. Insults were kept to a minimum. Camera readiness took on new significance. Seizing the moment proved critical.

The election is one of the most closely contested and important in Britain in many years -- polls suggest it could result in a hung Parliament. After 13 years in power, the longest in its history, the Labor Party faces rejection. Brown, who inherited the prime minister's job when Tony Blair stepped down after 10 years in office, is desperately trying to avoid being turned out of office without ever having been elected.

The Conservative Party, which dominated British politics for much of the 20th century, is attempting to rebound after a long period in the wilderness. Cameron, selected as party leader almost five years ago, has tried to remake the party's image as more tolerant and compassionate, seeking to move beyond the era of Margaret Thatcher. But the big lead his party once enjoyed has largely disappeared.

Clegg is the wild card, as third-party candidates often become. He seemingly has little chance to become prime minister, as his party continues to run behind Labor and the Tories. But he could be the spoiler in the election -- and potentially a kingmaker if neither of the other parties wins a majority of seats in the next Parliament.

But in Thursday's debate, Clegg broke through in ways that neither of his two rivals could. In the short-term, he will be the story of the campaign.

Brown's knowledge of government is deep and detailed after three years as prime minister and a decade as chancellor of the exchequer -- the equivalent of treasury secretary in the United States but a role in which he assumed virtual control over domestic policy under Blair. His expertise showed on Thursday. He was in command of his brief through much of the debate.

But Brown also came into the debate very much on the defensive, and therefore tried to take the fight to Cameron at every opportunity. He tried to bait the Tory leader on the economy and the deficit and spending, seeking to punch holes in Cameron's platform and demeanor. At one point, in a reference to their weekly engagements in Parliament, Brown said, "This isn't Question Time, it's answer time, David."

Brown has a difficult case to make. He is the least personable of the three, and his message is to promise both continuity and change. Brown won plaudits last year for his handling of the economic meltdown. His argument to British voters Thursday night was: do not risk changing governments at a still-precarious point in the economic recovery. Conservative policies, he warned, could bring a double-dip recession, while Labor would assure a steady and sustained recovery.

"This is no ordinary election," he said. "This is the defining year."

But for every problem the people in the audience asked about -- all questions initially came from the audience, but moderator Alastair Stewart of Britain's ITN did an admirable job of directing traffic and keeping the candidates on their marks -- Brown tried to explain that Labor had new policies, new commitments and new ideas to deal with them.


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