BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Polls declared Conservative leader David Cameron the winner Thursday of a final TV debate before next week’s British election, giving him a boost going into the closing stages of the campaign.
At the start of a debate focussed on the economy, Prime Minister Gordon Brown mocked himself for a high-profile campaign gaffe and stressed his record, trying to convince voters he was the man to secure future growth.
A Yougov poll for the top-selling Sun newspaper asking respondents who they judged had won the debate put Cameron on 41 percent, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg on 32 percent and Brown on 25 percent.
A ComRes poll for broadcaster ITV found 35 percent thought Cameron had won, against 33 percent for Clegg and 26 percent for Brown. A Populus survey for the Times newspaper put Cameron and Clegg neck-and-neck on 38 percent and Brown on 25 percent.
An ICM poll for the Guardian newspaper was the only one not to rank Brown in last place, putting him second behind Cameron.
“It was Cameron’s best performance of the three debates and he won it narrowly from Nick Clegg,” said Simon Lee, politics lecturer at Hull University.
The run-up to the debate was overshadowed by a blaze of bad publicity for Brown after he was caught by a lapel microphone calling a supporter of his Labour Party “bigoted” Wednesday.
Earlier polls Thursday suggested the incident had not seriously dented Labour support ahead of the May 6 election.
Brown, finance minister for a decade before he took over as prime minister in 2007, swiftly acknowledged his mistake. He warned the Conservatives’ plan to cut a record budget deficit this year risked plunging the country back into recession.
“There’s a lot to this job and as you saw yesterday I don’t get all of it right,” he said.
“But I do know how to run the economy in good times and in bad. When the banks collapsed I took immediate action to stop the crisis becoming a calamity and the recession becoming a depression.”
The economy is a key election issue as Britain struggles with sluggish growth and a deficit running at more than 11 percent of GDP.
Three U.S.-style television debates, the first in British politics, have dominated campaigning, raising the profile of Clegg, whose party has in the past been in third place.
Polls put the Conservatives in the lead but predict the Liberal Democrats will grab enough votes to deny both traditional main parties an overall majority, an outcome not seen since 1974.
Following the debate, bookies cut their odds on the Conservatives winning the most seats. According to betting on its website, Betfair said the likelihood of the election resulting in a Conservative majority increased by 3 percent over the course of the debate.
Brown, Cameron and Clegg clashed on a range of economic issues, including taxes, the banking sector and the decline of British manufacturing industry, but all three largely repeated their respective well-trodden party lines.
The most lively exchanges of the night were prompted by a question on immigration, a topic which has surfaced in each of the three debates and triggered Brown’s outburst Wednesday.
Cameron repeatedly attacked Brown’s economic record.
“This prime minister and this government have left our economy in such a mess with a budget deficit that this year is forecast to be bigger than that of Greece,” he said.
Bidding to end 13 years of Labour rule, Cameron promised Britain a brighter future.
“If you vote Conservative Thursday, you can have a new fresh government making a clean break and taking our country in a new direction and bringing the change that we need,” he said.
Clegg told voters not to return to the two parties that have dominated post-war politics.
“When you go to vote next week, choose the future you really want. Together we will really change Britain.”
Additional reporting by Michael Holden, Estelle Shirbon, Jodie Ginsberg and Mohammed Abbas; editing by Andrew Roche