LONDON — The leaders of seven British parties clashed Thursday evening in a debate that reflected the increasingly fractious nature of the country’s politics — and the potentially messy consequences once voters have their say in a highly unpredictable election next month.
With polls showing a too-close-to-call race between the nation’s two top parties, the debate represented the only time that Labor Party leader Ed Miliband will directly face the man he is seeking to unseat, Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party.
Although the two men are the only realistic contenders to inhabit 10 Downing Street after the vote, they shared the stage Thursday evening with five others candidates, who could play kingmaker — or spoiler.
The result was a freewheeling but substantive and largely civil two hours in which the leaders of Britain’s smaller parties took turns jabbing Cameron and Miliband, with both men taking hits from their political left and right.
Miliband attacked the prime minister for cutting spending too aggressively and not doing enough to address what the Labor leader called “the cost of living crisis.”
“Britain succeeds when working people succeed. But that’s not the way it’s been for the past five years,” he said.
Meanwhile, UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, whose insurgent campaign threatens to siphon support from both Labor and the Tories, chastised Cameron for not eliminating the deficit, as he had promised during his 2010 campaign.
“We’ve maxed out the credit cards. We’ve got to get real,” Farage said.
But Cameron blamed Labor for leaving Britain in a deep rut after the 2008 financial crisis, and cited 2 million new jobs and a deficit cut in half as evidence that the country has regained its footing. “Let’s stick to the plan that’s working. Let’s not go back to square one,” he said.
Miliband also took fire from the Green Party leader, as well as the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh nationalist movements, who criticized him for being insufficiently progressive on matters of taxes and spending.
The debate revolved around domestic issues, with no time devoted to foreign policy. The candidates briefly traded barbs over Britain’s membership in the European Union — specifically on whether the country should get out to limit immigration. The grave security challenges facing Europe — including Russian advances in Ukraine and the rise of the Islamic State — went unmentioned.
Snap surveys following the debate showed that neither Cameron nor Miliband had secured a breakthrough. Neither is expected to gain a majority in the next parliament, meaning a coalition will be needed to govern.
That was also true after the last election, in 2010, when Cameron’s Conservatives joined Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to form a government that many thought was sure to fail but endured for five years.
The post-election deal-making this time around could be far trickier, now that support for Clegg’s centrist party has cratered. Parties that were once on the fringe of British politics appear poised to fill the vacuum.
The Scottish National Party — buoyed by what analysts and polls indicated was a strong performance by leader Nicola Sturgeon Thursday evening — is expected to take the third-largest number of seats in Parliament. That result could put a party that wants to break up the United Kingdom at the center of negotiations over who will govern the country.
Farage’s party is also expected to see a surge in support over its 2010 results and could win several seats for the first time in a general election, with voters rallying to its hard-line stance on immigration.
Neither the Conservatives nor Labor has an obvious post-election partner beyond the Liberal Democrats, leading to fears of protracted negotiations and, ultimately, a weak, minority government that won’t last.
Cameron has sought to play up the possibility of post-election chaos, reasoning that voters turned off by potential instability will turn to the Tories as a safe bet. His campaign pushed hard for minor parties to be included in Thursday’s debate and scuttled a possible one-on-one showdown with Miliband.
Instead, Cameron and Miliband appeared in back-to-back televised questioning last week — something they will do once more this month before voters make their choices on May 7.