Clegg emerges as the winner in first round of televised debates
The three men vying to be the next prime minister of Britain clashed over the economy, defence and care last night in a TV debate.
There were no knock-out blows, but the consensus was that Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg made the most impact and with Gordon Brown bottom of the barrell.
Millions tuned in to see Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Mr Clegg go head-to-head. They outlined stark differences over the key issue of ensuring recovery from the recession.
While Mr Cameron said Mr Brown was planning to "go on wasting now so I can put up your taxes later", Mr Brown responded that Tory plans to cut £6bn (€6.83bn) from government spending risked tipping Britain into a "double-dip recession".
All parties recognised that cuts must be made and the question for voters was: "Who is going to be straight with you about the scale of those cuts?"
The 90-minute debate on ITV1 was the first of a series of three, with further clashes on Sky News and BBC1 on the two remaining Thursdays before the May 6 election.
After the launch of the Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem manifestos earlier this week, there were no new policy announcements. Strict rules banning the audience from applauding and the candidates from interrupting one another meant the debate never descended into the passionate, bear-pit atmosphere of prime minister's questions in the House of Commons.
But there were moments of conflict. Mr Brown challenged the Conservative leader repeatedly over whether he would match Labour plans for police spending. And he challenged Mr Cameron to "be honest" that his plans would cost "thousands of jobs, including teachers".
Meanwhile, the Tory leader said Mr Brown was "misleading" voters by claiming that British troops' shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan was due to a change in tactics rather than under-funding.
Mr Cameron also accused Mr Clegg of being "holier than thou", after the Lib Dem leader pointed out that none of his MPs were caught out "flipping" homes or avoiding capital gains tax.
Mr Brown appeared to try to secure the support of the Lib Dem leader -- who may hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament -- by repeatedly saying that he agreed him on issues like parliamentary reform and care for the elderly.
But Mr Clegg responded that he was "absolutely dismayed" to hear Mr Brown trying to make a show of unity.
The fiercest exchanges came as the leaders debated the recovery from recession and the Conservative plans to cut £6bn from government spending this year to fund the reversal of the planned National Insurance rise.
Labour's plans to increase National Insurance would cost jobs, Mr Cameron said.
Mr Brown retorted that Tory plans would "hit jobs and risk businesses and risk the economy", adding: "If we take that money out of the economy now, I fear for what will happen. We don't want to have a double-dip recession in this country."
But Mr Clegg said neither of the other parties was being straight on taxation and spending.
Addressing both Mr Brown and Mr Cameron, he said: "You haven't got any figures in your manifestos."
Mr Clegg was the clear winner in the first opinion poll to be taken after the debate, picked as the best leader by more than half of those questioned by YouGov for 'The Sun'.
Some 51pc of the 1,091 people questioned said Mr Clegg had come out on top, 22 points ahead of David Cameron on 29pc, with Mr Brown trailing on 19pc.
There were sharp exchanges on issues ranging from crime to defence, immigration, MPs' expenses and health in what was billed as The First Election Debate.
Summing up his appeal to voters at the end of the debate, Mr Brown said Britain did not want to repeat the "mistakes of the 1980s" when unemployment continued to rise for years after a recession.