[LONDON] The opposition parties vying for a role in Britain's next government went head-to-head on Thursday in the final television debate three weeks from what promises to be the closest election in decades.
Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party and main rival, the Labour party of Ed Miliband, are neck-and-neck ahead of the vote and both may rely on support from smaller parties to form a majority.
The premier was attacked for being absent from the discussion and his rival Miliband made a direct challenge to the camera to debate him one-on-one.
"David Cameron refused to come and debate tonight, but I have got a message for him," Mr Miliband said.
"David, if you think this election is about leadership, then debate me one-on-one... Debate me and let the people decide." Mr Cameron has minimised debate appearances and declined to take part, avoiding the risk of damaging personal ratings that have long been higher than Mr Miliband's.
As audience members posed questions on housing, defence, public spending and immigration, Mr Miliband clashed with the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which may hold the balance of power after the vote on May 7.
"We share a desire to see the back of the Tories but surely we do not want to replace the Tories with 'Tory lite'," said SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, indicating she would support a "progressive" alliance of Labour with the Green party and anti-austerity Welsh party Plaid Cymru.
"We have a chance to kick David Cameron out of Downing Street," Sturgeon told Miliband. "Don't turn your back on it, people will never forgive you." But Miliband insisted he was aiming for an outright majority and rejected the idea of an alliance with a party that seeks Scottish independence and the break up of the United Kingdom, saying: "It's a 'no', I'm afraid."
Mr Miliband, who has fought to replace a geeky public image with a tougher persona, was declared the winner of the debate in a poll of 1,013 viewers by Survation for the Daily Mirror.
The Labour leader came out on top with 35 per cent of viewers judging him the winner, followed by 31 per cent for the SNP's Sturgeon and 27 per cent for Nigel Farage of the anti-immigration, anti-European Union UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Mr Farage blamed immigrants for causing housing shortages and insisted that Britain would be "much better if we governed ourselves".
He dismissed the other party leaders as being "career professional political classes" and out of touch with ordinary people.
"They are not prepared to stand up and fight for ordinary folk in this country by confronting the tough issues. I am. I am unafraid to say what I think," Mr Farage said.
But he was booed by the in-studio audience after he accused them of having a left-wing bias, prompting BBC moderator David Dimbleby to point out an independent polling company had selected a representative audience for the broadcaster.
The leaders of minor opposition parties Plaid Cymru and the Green Party received audience applause as they argued angrily against Conservative and Labour plans for further spending cuts, and criticised Mr Farage for his tough-on-immigrants stance.
"The Tories' heavy austerity has cut deeply into the lives of those who can least afford it," Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said, urging the audience to "vote for hope".
Nick Clegg, the leader of the junior coalition partner in Mr Cameron's government, the Liberal Democrats, was not invited to join the debate after Cameron refused.
On April 30, a week before the vote, Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg will appear in a final television event in which they will answer voters' questions without debating each other.