Britain’s main party leaders square up for a second pre-election TV debate tonight, with all eyes on whether Nick Clegg can repeat the star turn that won his Liberal Democrats a stunning poll surge.
Clegg outshone British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Conservatives’ David Cameron in last week’s domestic policy debate, pushing his centrist party from a distant third to pole position in some opinion polls.
As this week’s focus switches to foreign affairs, however, Clegg — a former European lawmaker who speaks five languages and is married to a Spaniard — faces tougher scrutiny, particularly of his pro-European views.
“The Lib Dems are going to have a much tougher time being europhiles,” said Victoria Honeyman, a politics lecturer at Leeds University. “The British are not interested. They don’t want to be members of the eurozone.”
The debate is also likely to cover issues including the controversial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which Britain was led into by Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair.
Cameron will be battling to restore his reputation as prime minister in waiting after last week’s disappointing turn, which included a gaffe when he argued for retaining the Trident nuclear deterrent by evoking doubts about China’s future.
The Conservatives had been ahead in opinion polls for more than two years.
But Britain’s emergence from recession at the end of last year and the advent of “Cleggmania” in recent days has seen their lead chipped away.
A Guardian/ICM poll on Tuesday put the Tories down four points to 33 percent, the Liberal Democrats up ten to 30 percent and Labour down three to 28 percent.
Cameron is likely to come out “all guns blazing” against Clegg, Honeyman said, but must negotiate European policy with care: It has been a minefield for his party since the days of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
He will want to appear euroskeptic, but not too much so for fear of scaring off swing voters he has worked hard to cultivate, and who will be key if the Tories are to end their 13 years in opposition, she added.
The Conservatives’ decision last year to pull out of the European Parliament’s main center-right grouping was sharply criticized by Labour, who charge that Britain under the Tories would be isolated in the 27-nation bloc.
Cameron’s party’s manifesto pledges “never” to join the euro and wants to roll back key powers from Brussels, including on justice and employment.
Brown also faces awkward questions about the European issue, experts say.
Labour has a sometimes uncomfortable relationship with Europe: its manifesto proclaims it is “proud” to be a “leading player” in the EU, but after three successive Labour governments, Britain is still not in the euro.