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Nick Clegg faces toughest test in final TV debate

29th April 2010

Lib Dem leader anxious to maintain bounce as debate focuses on economy, followed by 45 minutes of open questions

Nick Clegg faces his greatest test of the general election campaign tonight as he fights to maintain his personal surge in the final leaders' television debate amid a mixed picture for the Liberal Democrats in the polls.

A third strong performance will help Clegg to intensify the Lib Dem squeeze on David Cameron and allow him to exploit Gordon Brown's woes after yesterday's "bigot" row.

A less assured performance could see Cameron, who was given an eight-point lead over the Lib Dems in one poll yesterday, finally securing a decisive breakthrough a week before polling day.

Clegg will hope that the debate gives him a chance to return to substantive policy issues after his campaign was overshadowed this week by what he would do in the event of a hung parliament. Lib Dem aides, who had always said they would avoid being sidetracked by the media obsession with a hung parliament, felt he had to address Tory claims that his success in the television debates meant that a vote for Clegg would deliver another five years of Brown.

Clegg made clear yesterday that voters now want to see him and the other leaders focus solely on policy. "I think in a sense the mood in the country will be quite sober and quite demanding, as it should be," he told BBC London. "So I think in many ways actually the third debate is the debate where people will be listening hardest to exactly what the leaders are saying on their policies."

His remarks came as the Lib Dems digested differing opinion polls. A Populus poll in the Times put them in second place on 28%, down three points, eight points behind the Tories who were on 36%, up four points. Labour was in third place on 27%, down one point.

But a YouGov poll in the Sun showed a much tighter picture. The Tories were unchanged in first place on 33%. Labour was second on 29%, up one point. The Lib Dems were in third place on 28%, down one point.

The debate on BBC1, hosted by David Dimbleby, will focus on the economy. But Dimbleby will be free to take questions on any subject in the final 45 minutes, which means the three leaders could be asked about Brown's encounter with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale.

All the leaders are likely to face pressure in the light of the Institute for Fiscal Studies report that said the three main parties had failed to be honest about the depths of the spending cuts that will be imposed from next year. The parties agree that action will have to be taken to reduce the £167bn fiscal deficit.

In the final round of debate "prep", the three teams were trying to work out the dynamics between Clegg, Brown and Cameron. The Lib Dem leader is closer to Brown on the deficit. Clegg is highly critical of Brown for running up such a large deficit but believes it is right to delay taking action to reduce the structural element, through tax increases and spending cuts, until next year in light of the fragile economic recovery. Cameron believes it is important to signal to the markets a serious intention to tackle the deficit by making "in year" cuts of £6bn this year. This could leave the Tory leader isolated.

A Clegg-Brown push on the deficit could see Cameron turn on his two opponents over the euro in the face of the financial crisis in Greece. Speaking during a visit to the Morley and Outwood constituency being contested by Ed Balls, Cameron said: "If we were in the euro – and the Liberal Democrats thought we should have joined the euro last year; the year before that, Labour supports joining the euro – if we were in the euro right now, all of your taxes, all of your national insurance, some of that would be taken to bail out Greece. As long as I'm your prime minister, I will not join the euro."

If Cameron mentions the euro Brown will probably say that he and Balls were responsible for keeping Britain out of the single currency after they drew up the famous five tests. Clegg says that British membership is off the agenda.

The open part of the debate means the leaders could face questions on immigration, the issue that prompted the prime minister to describe Duffy as a "bigot". Clegg will be working hard to sound confident on immigration. His most difficult moment of the week came in his Andrew Marr interview on Sunday when he faced pressure on the Lib Dems' plans for a regional points-based system.

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