LONDON - British Prime Minister David Cameron and his austerity policies came under attack on Thursday from six other party leaders in the only full debate before next month's general election.
The Conservative party head struggled to convince viewers in an unprecedented seven-leader live television contest that underscored the fragmentation of the electorate.
"My plan is about basically one word: security," Cameron said in his concluding remarks. "Let's stick to the plan that's working." His main rival, Ed Miliband of the left-leaning opposition Labour Party, sought to shake off a socially awkward media image and define himself as a real alternative to Cameron.
"There's one fundamental choice in this election," Miliband said. "Do we build a Britain that puts working people first, or do we carry on with a government that's not on your side?" The leaders of the two main parties, who are currently neck-and-neck in polls and likely to require support from other parties to rule, were often outclassed by strong performances by the leaders of smaller parties.
An ITV News/ComRes survey of 1,120 viewers showed a tie between Cameron, Miliband, the anti-immigration UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, followed by Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party that is set to sweep up most seats in Scotland.
As topics ranged from a housing crisis, to national debt and the health service, Farage insisted the root problem was an influx of immigrants and that Britain should cut migrant numbers by leaving the European Union.
"What you've seen tonight is the politically correct political class," an animated Farage told the audience. "They don't understand the thoughts, hopes and aspirations of ordinary people in this country." The most heated exchanges centred on whether Britain should hold a referendum on EU membership, promised by Cameron if he is re-elected.
Farage attacked the pro-EU Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, shouting at him to "tell the truth".
A consensus between Labour and the Conservative party that some level of austerity will be needed to balance Britain's budget after the election was tested by contrary voices not always included in political debate.
An unflappable Sturgeon, whose SNP is predicted to win dozens of seats, argued forcefully that her party would be an ally for progressive politics in a parliament in which no party is expected to win an overall majority.
"You can vote for the same old parties and get the same old politics, more cuts and more misguided policies. Or you can vote for something different, better and more progressive," she urged viewers.
She was joined in questioning Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat plans for further cuts to public spending by Green Party leader Natalie Bennett and the head of Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood.
"There is an alternative to the Westminster consensus of more cuts. Austerity is not inevitable, it's a choice," Wood urged.
Bennett added: "You don't have to go on voting for the lesser of two evils. That's how we ended up with the tired failed politics that we have now." The leaders of the smaller parties, who have tended to play more marginal roles in the run-up to the election, claimed centre stage in the debate.
Responding to criticism from Farage against HIV-positive immigrants, Welsh leader Wood won the first audience applause of the night by telling him: "You should be ashamed of yourself." In stiff criticism of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition for raising student fees, Sturgeon was awarded the next applause.
"Your access to education as a young person should be based on your ability to learn, and never ever on your ability to pay," the red-suited Sturgeon said.
The debate may do little to gather decisive support around either of the two main parties in Britain's most unpredictable election in years.
The ITV News/ComRes poll following the debate showed Cameron was seen as the most capable of leading the country with 40 per cent support, followed by Miliband on 28 per cent.
But no party emerged the clear winner, with 30 per cent of respondents saying that after the debate they intended to vote Labour, 29 per cent Conservative, followed by 22 per cent for UKIP.