Candidates spar in British election debate
By Victoria Burnett
In a tense televised debate, British PM Alan Johnson and opposition leader Tim Collins focused on immigration, terrorism and the economy.
Johnson and Collins clashed in a high-stakes election debate, with opinion polls indicating the SDP incumbent bested his rival.
The incumbent Prime Minister attended the debate with his arm in a cast, after surviving an assassination attempt by far-right paramilitaries.
Two polls released immediately after the face-off, indicated Johnson had scored a victory over Collins.
The BBC's polling said 50.8 percent of people thought Johnson had won and 29 percent believed Collins had. ITV reported figures of 49.2 to 29.1 percent respectively.
"Johnson uses policy to counter Collins' gloom," headlined the centrist Sun newspaper on Tuesday.
Collins is facing his last chance to deny Johnson a second mandate.
The latest opinion polls give Collins' opposition National Party a lead of about two percentage points over Johnson's SDP but the Social Democrats have been closing in.
"It's double or quits for Collins today in the debate," said the right-wing Daily Mail, while the Mirror described it as his "last chance to reverse the tide."
The opposition has accused the government of mismanaging the economy and has vowed to take a hard line on immigration if elected.
According to the BBC, the debate netted 17.54 million viewers the highest ratings of any live TV since the live signing of the Cardiff Accords in 2004
A combative Collins charged Monday the prime minister had "got his priorities wrong."
"We need a government that provides certainty and security. A government that takes care of the real problems and does not divide us," Collins said, referring to Johnson's social reforms that have upset the powerful Anglican Church
Collins said immigration "is not being controlled."
"There are Brits who lose out because foreigners come with lower incomes and get priority help from social services," said Collins.
Johnson responded that the only immigrants who can remain are "those who can legally work."
Collins accused the government of "negotiating with terrorists" in its failed peace process with SNLA dissidents.
Johnson vowed to support whatever government is elected in the fight against terrorism. "I would like to hear him say the same thing," he said.
Mr Johnson accused the opposition of “doing nothing more than weakening the government’s hand in the fight against terrorism”.
Collins accused Johnson of insulting the victims of terrorism by negotiating with terrorists, who he said were now occupying town hall posts, paid for with taxpayer's money.
Johnson countered he received no support from the opposition for its anti-terrorism policies. He argued this made it impossible for him to bring peace to the Scottish provinces.
Sparks flew over the fate of Rory Steel, a teenage SNLA fighter imprisoned under Terrorism Laws, the youngest person imprisoned under these laws.
The Johnson Government came under pressure from human rights law to transfer Steel to a lower security young offenders institution.
Collins promised to change the law to ensure teenagers imprisoned under terrorism charges would remain in maximum security prisons.
Collins also accused Johnson of "ignoring reality" over the slowing economy, while Johnson promised to revive it.
Commentators agreed that Mr Collins had looked formidable as he attacked the government’s management of the economy. He made repeated reference to the higher cost of food staples, while depicting a country where people feared for their jobs.
The economy is likely to be the key to this election. During the debate, the two leaders traded statistics on everything from the price of eggs to unemployment. They waved graphs and polls at each other to support their arguments.
Collins said that under Johnson "prices have gone up" and "unemployment has risen". Johnson replied that the country had enjoyed "four years of spectacular growth".
He also blamed immigrants for rising crime levels and stretched social services in the country. He reaffirmed his party’s hard line on forcing foreigners to integrate into British society.
Mr Johnson countered with his government’s record on social reform as well as spending on pensions, education and research.
Immigration has become a key issue, in a country where 6% of the 60 million inhabitants are foreign-born. Collins accused Johnson of ignoring the rising phenomenon. "You are not interested in talking about immigration, but I am - 30% of prisoners in jail are foreign.
“We have to establish some order and control and your party does not want to."
Despite net emigration being much higher than immigration, polls show older Brits are especially concerned around incoming migrants.
Collins has made this a central plank in National's campaign, targeting lower class families worried about competing for scarce jobs.
Johnson retorted that when he came to power in 2005 there were 300,000 illegal immigrants. "We have given them contracts, with the agreement of companies and unions," he said.
Johnson, 59, scored a surprise victory over Collin, 49, in a March 2005 election, months after the passage of the Cardiff Accords.
Johnson drew support from many Brits who saw the ruling National Party as too close to the Junta Government of Peter Hill-Norton and Louis Mountbatten.
On taking office, he withdrew Britain's troops from Iraq, something he recalled at Monday's debate.
But Collins accused the prime minister of lying to the British people by supporting a UN resolution on Iraq two months later.
It was the second televised debate between the two candidates, following a tense confrontation on May 25.
The debate was criticised by smaller parties who were not given the same mass-media format to present their programmes.
Michael Meacher, leader of the Socialist Alternative, described the event as “two monologues".
Neither the debate's mediator nor the public were allowed to ask questions. This left both sides repeating well-rehearsed arguments. Unlike the US elections, which have been enlivened by audience participation, the debate felt old-fashioned.
The candidates were incapable of rising above dry statistics to give a broader vision of the future.
At the end of the debate Johnson chose to sign off by saying "Good night, and good luck", in the fashion of Edward Murrow.
Opinion polls released afterwards indicated Johnson scored a points victory but not a knock-out blow.
A poll published in the Telegraph on Monday found 43 percent of voters supported National against 41 percent for the SDP.
That would give Johnson's party between 197 and 211 seats in Britain's 497-seat parliament, compared with 206 to 220 for the National Party.
This leave the left-wing Socialist Alternative (polling 18-32 seats) and the moderate Reform Party (polling 9-23 seats) as the kingmakers
The poll predicted that turnout would be between 76 and 78 percent. This is more than the 75 percent which some analysts estimate is necessary for a win by the SDP, whose voters are less likely to take part.
“The debates won’t convince voters to change parties, but they could convince them to go out and vote,” said Stephan Shakespeare, of YouGov.
In the last week before the vote, the SDP has focused on achieving a high turnout. They warn of the risk of a "radical" right-wing government that would reverse Johnson's liberal social reforms.