LONDON — British voters on Thursday engaged in a burst of political catharsis before next week’s election, taking turns pelting the two men who are seeking to lead the country with combative and at times hostile questions during back-to-back television appearances that reflected the public’s sour mood ahead of the down-to-the-wire vote.
David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, was accused of lying about his plans to cut government benefits, failing in his vow to stop mass immigration and lacking a moral vocabulary for the nation’s struggles.
Ed Miliband, the Labor challenger, faced allegations that he had learned nothing from his party’s mistakes, had vilified business for political gain and had opted to bypass the public will on Britain’s membership in the European Union.
With neither man expected to win a majority, both were interrogated on their plans for post-election deal-making. Both were told by feisty and insistent voters that their answers weren’t credible.
The special edition of the BBC’s venerable “Question Time” program marked the British public’s last chance to compare the two candidates side-by-side before next Thursday’s vote. The campaign has featured several televised showdowns in a variety of formats, but no true one-on-one debate because the Cameron camp refused.
Voters selected for the studio audience made the most of Thursday’s opportunity, however, grilling Cameron and Miliband for 30 minutes apiece before turning their sights on Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, a centrist party that is expected to perform poorly in a year when voters are increasingly turning to the fringes.
Labor and the Conservatives are virtually tied in the polls, with neither party able to establish a decisive advantage despite weeks of slugging it out in a campaign that has revolved around the economy, health care and immigration.
Cameron was first up Thursday, and immediately came under assault for not detailing his plans to cut about $18 billion worth of government benefits after five years of tough austerity policies.
“I just think you’re deceiving the British public,” a young man told the prime minister.
A young woman asked him pointedly about a record number of Brits using food banks, a fact seemingly at odds with Cameron’s claim to have resuscitated the economy.
“It takes a long time to clean up the mess we were hired to clean up,” Cameron shot back.
He cited 2 million new jobs and a deficit cut in half. But the audience was unmoved: “All of these questions have a moral dimension,” the prime minister was told. “And you keep answering in terms of economics.”
Miliband faced an equally chilly reception. Pressed on whether the last Labor government had spent too much money, he said it hadn’t — an answer that elicited groans.
“If you can’t accept that you overspent in the last government, why on earth should we trust you again?” a middle-aged man asked.
Several business owners suggested Labor was trying to score points at their expense. Miliband countered that he was seeking to create a fairer society, one less stacked toward the rich. He also defended his decision not to set a specific target for limiting immigration by acknowledging what was obvious — the British public’s contempt for politicians.
“Trust is so low in politics,” he said. “I want to be the first politician to under-promise and over-deliver, not over-promise and under-deliver.”
After five years of coalition government between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, voters will probably deliver another mixed verdict. This one, however, could be far messier, given the spectacular surge of the Scottish National Party, at Labor’s expense, and the collapse in Liberal Democrat support.
Both Cameron and Miliband insisted Thursday they are still aiming for a majority. But incredulous questioners urged them to come clean on their plans to form a viable government without one.
Cameron said he wouldn’t form a coalition if it meant abandoning plans for a referendum on EU membership. Miliband ruled out “a deal” with the SNP, which wants to break up the United Kingdom through Scottish independence. But his answer left room for Labor to govern with SNP backing.