Mr Cameron was more successful in engaging with the television audience than last week and repeatedly styled himself as a premier in waiting, beginning several answers with the words ‘if I were your Prime Minister...’
Mr Clegg again used the ploy of referring to ‘the old parties’, a line which inevitably seemed to lack the impact of a week ago, but also referred to Barack Obama more than once in an attempt to assume the mantle of change. However, he came under sustained attack from the other leaders over his policy not to renew the Trident nuclear missile system.
Mr Brown appeared more passionate than last week but spent less of the debate engaging with the audience and more of his time attacking his two rivals.
The debate was more intense and the result harder to call. One early poll, by You Gov, put Mr Cameron in first place.However, another poll showed Mr Clegg to be the best performer and placed Gordon Brown and Mr Cameron tied.
Mr Cameron was also forced to concede for the first time that he would be prepared to work with Mr Clegg in a hung parliament.
With Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg appearing to pull away from Mr Brown, theprospect arose of the Liberal Democrats proving the main challenger to the Conservatives although, because of the quirks of the electoral system, Mr Brown could come third but still win the most seats.
Mr Clegg seemed unruffled by the pressure that was on him after last week’s performance that sent the Lib Dem poll ratings rising and again repeatedly referred to the “two old parties”.
For the second week running, the first instant opinion poll, by ComRes for ITV, found that Mr Clegg won the debate, although by a smaller margin. The Liberal Democrat leader scored 33 per cent, while Mr Brown and Mr Cameron were neck and neck on 30 per cent, with seven per cent undecided.
Both the Prime Minister and the Tory leader improved their standing significantly on last week, when Mr Brown was said to have won by only 20 per cent and Mr Cameron by 26 per cent. Mr Clegg’s performance was less impressive than during the first debate, which he won with an overwhelming 43 per cent.
But Mr Brown’s stronger performance failed to translate into support from voters, with only 24 per cent saying that they would vote Labour, the same figure as a week ago.
The Liberal Democrats continued to enjoy their extraordinary post-debate “bounce”, with 36 per cent of voters who watched the debate saying that they would back them on polling day, one per cent more than last week, pushing the Conservatives into second place with 35 per cent, down one point.
The Liberal Democrat leader struggled when forced to defend the party’s policies towards Europe. His views on defence also appeared not to have proved popular with voters.
After a lacklustre performance last week that has seriously threatened Tory chances of an outright majority at the election, Mr Cameron changed his tactics.
He became angry on several occasions, most noticeably when he accused Mr Brown of allowing Labour to peddle “lies” to scare pensioners about Tory policies. He demanded Mr Brown withdraw the leaflet making the accusations.
Unlike last week’s debate, Mr Clegg found himself the focus of sustained attacks from Mr Cameron, who stands to lose most from the unprecedented Lib Dem surge. He rounded on Mr Clegg for his attempt to claim that Lib Dem MPs were less tainted by the expenses scandal.
He said: “Frankly Nick, we all had problems over this. Don’t anyone try to put themselves on a pedestal. We are all in this mess.”
Over the past few days, Lib Dem policies and the funding of the party have come under increasing scrutiny.
On Thursday, The Daily Telegraph disclosed that three Lib Dem donors had made regular monthly payments into Mr Clegg’s personal bank account in 2006.
Shortly before the debate, the Lib Dems released copies of Mr Clegg’s bank statements which they said showed that their leader had used the money to fund a member of staff. He received almost £20,000 between 2006 and 2008.
Mr Clegg responded: “Of course, no one is blemish-free, people aren’t angels. But if you are to persuade people to invest trust in politicians, it is not enough to talk the talk and not walk the walk.”
Conservative strategists will spend the next few days studying detailed polling to gauge whether Mr Cameron’s performance has halted the Liberal Democrat surge.
The audience for the debate, which was hosted by Sky News and also shown on the BBC News Channel, will be less than last week’s.
That means any impact on the opinion polls could be less. Mr Brown again appeared to struggle when faced with his two younger challengers. However, after an unconvincing 90-minutes, he rallied to deliver a strong closing statement.
At the start of the debate, the three leaders clashed over Europe when an audience member asked about Britain’s continued membership of the European Union.
Mr Cameron said Labour had given too many powers away to Europe and had colluded with the Liberal Democrats to deny the public a vote on the Lisbon Treaty.
The Tory leader promised a “referendum guarantee” to ensure future powers were not handed to Brussels.
But Mr Clegg said he would offer “a referendum on the fundamental issue, do we stay in or do we go out,” adding that he would campaign to remain in the union.
He added: “The Conservative Party gave a cast-iron guarantee to have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which it then dropped.”
Mr Cameron retorted: “This idea that what people want is an in-out referendum, I don’t think it’s right. It’s a con.”
Mr Brown claimed that the Tories would “repatriate the social chapter.” He explained: “That’s what gave us paid holidays.”
The Tories claimed that was desperate, suggesting there were no paid holidays before Britain’s membership of the EU.
Mr Cameron came under attack for his party’s alliance with Right-wing groups in the European Parliament. Mr Clegg called them “nutters.”
Mr Brown intervened and attempted to portray himself as the older, more experienced politician.
He said: “You know who these two remind me of, they remind me of my two young boys, squabbling at bath time.”
Mr Clegg suffered a blow when he talked about Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. Real-time voter polls seemed to show they did not agree with his policy of scrapping Trident and replacing it with an unspecified weapons system.
Tempers flared outside the party leaders’ debate. Officers on horseback, dogs and police equipped with riot shields held back the 150-strong crowd, just metres away from the Bristol arts centre hosting the debate.
The crowd was made up of numerous groups – including Palestinian campaigners and anti-war protesters. Avon and Somerset Police said six people had been arrested for public order offences.
Source : telegraph