British debates: Cameron and Brown take aim at Nick Clegg tonight

Tonight's British debates, setting up the British election, will focus on foreign affairs. But Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron are expected to take aim at surging rival Nick Clegg, leader of the upstart Liberal Democrats.

By , Correspondent

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    Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown (r.), opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (l.) take part in the first of Britain's leadership election debates at ITV studios in Manchester April 15. In tonight's British debates, the theme will be international affairs.
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The theme of tonight's British debate, two weeks ahead of the British election, will be international affairs.

But the incumbent Prime Minster Gordon Brown of the Labour Party and his principal rival David Cameron of the Conservative Party will be focusing closer to home, finally finding something they can agree upon: Nick Clegg and his surging Liberal Democrats need to be stopped.

All three will meet tonight in a US-style televised debate on Britain’s role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, its relationship with Europe, its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what is to be done about the UK’s nuclear arsenal. With a recent poll showing a surge in support for the LibDems and Mr. Clegg after a first debate focused on domestic concerns, the leaders of the UK's two biggest parties are expected to hammer away at Clegg in an area where he has limited experience and where his party's platform is most at odds with the views of the British electorate.

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The affable and relaxed Clegg scored a knock out victory – winning, many here would argue, more on style that substance – in the first debate, According to a Wednesday Ipsos MORI poll, the LibDems have surged since, up 11 points from last month and are now tied with the front running Conservatives with 32 percent of the vote, and ahead of Labour, with 28 percent. This represents the highest score ever recorded for the party since it formed in 1988. The general election will be held on May 6.

“What the last debate showed us was the importance of the leaders in this debate. It seems to be very much about the personalities – how they behave and what they say, perhaps even more than about the policies themselves,” says Helen Coombs, deputy head of political research at London-based Ipsos MORI, one of the largest survey research organizations in the world.

“The truth is people don’t necessarily agree with the LibDem policies,” notes Ms. Coombs. “A lot of people are actually unaware of what they even are, but there is an appetite for change and any candidate that manages to convey that they, as a leader, can offer such change is appealing.”

A new Populus poll for the London Times shows the LibDems making particularly striking gains with younger voters. Populus found that the biggest switchers to the LibDems were voters 25-34, with an 18 percent rise to 40 percent support.

Britain's electoral system makes an outright victory, or even a plurality, for the LibDems virtually impossible, political scientists say. But their surge could lead to a hung parliament, and possibly make Clegg the kingmaker in forming a coalition government after the election.

Only connect

The LibDem surge has forced Mr. Cameron and Brown to change tactics, and both will no doubt try to regain lost ground by working to better connect with viewers of tonight’s debate. But they are also fighting an apparent trend favoring style, and have promised to go after Clegg on his actual policies in a bid to show that being a fresh face isn't enough.

“Whether or not Clegg is able to stand up to this pressure and present clear policy positions tonight” will be key to “whether he can maintain the momentum of last week or whether the conversation will shift back to one between Cameron and Brown,“ says Mark Wickham-Jones, a professor of political science at Bristol University.

The LibDems have differentiated themselves in recent years on matters of foreign policy more than in almost any other arena. They were the only party of the three that opposed the Iraq war, and today remain the most vocal critics of the conduct of military operations in Afghanistan. On Israel, the LibDems are also seen as the most critical, saying Britain should put pressure on Israel to end the blockade on Gaza.

And not all LibDem positions are historically popular in Britain. Clegg is controversially opposed to upgrading Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system – as Labour and the Conservatives would have it – and supports halving the UK’s stockpile of nuclear warheads.

Clegg, who has a Spanish wife, a Dutch mother and a Russian grandparent, is also the most European friendly of the candidates. He supports continued EU membership, as well as participation in a pan-European justice system and greater European security and defense cooperation. While Conservatives rule out joining the Euro and Labour is hesitant, the LibDem's platform argues that joining would be in Britain’s long-term interest.

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