U.K.'s Brown the target in final TV debate

The third British election debate was the most combative yet, as Labour Leader Gordon Brown tried to move past his gaffe from the day before and his rivals sought to cement their strong opinion poll numbers.
Left to right, Conservative Leader David Cameron, Liberal Democrat Party Leader Nick Clegg and Labour's Prime Minister Gordon Brown shake hands after Britain's third televised election debate Thursday in Birmingham, England. ((Gareth Fuller/Associated Press) )

After a campaign gaffe the day before, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stressed his vast treasury experience Thursday in the third televised leaders' debate of Britain's election campaign.

In third place in opinion polls behind Conservative Leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, the Labour leader wasted no time in the final debate before the May 6 election, using his opening remarks to neutralize Wednesday's gaffe with a smart quip.

Brown had forgotten to turn off his microphone Wednesday after a Labour voter asked about an influx of Eastern European immigrants. After the conversation ended, Brown was heard muttering "bigoted woman" and blaming aides.

"There is a lot to this job, and as you saw yesterday, I don't get all of it right," Brown said, referring to his gaffe. "But I do know how to run the economy in good times and in bad."

Britain's first-ever televised leaders' debates have spurred an unexpected transformation in the country's politics and shaped the election, one of the closest in decades.

Months ago, Tory chief Cameron was favoured to become the next prime minister, but he was eclipsed in the first debate by Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats have been the third wheel in British politics for decades.

Cameron rebounded in the second showdown, on foreign policy, but has so far failed to win enough support to claim an outright majority in Parliament. Brown has consistently trailed the two, but hoped to win on the economy, the subject of the final TV contest.

Britain faces mammoth economic troubles in the coming years with one of the largest deficits in Europe — a 152.8-billion pound ($236-billion) sum racked up during the global financial crisis. An unforgiving 18-month recession has led 1.3 million people to be laid off, while 50,000 families have lost their homes.

'Fix our banks'

Cameron came out fighting in his opening remarks Thursday, calling for reforms to financial regulation and insisting Britain must rebuild its depleted manufacturing sector.

"First we have to reward work and tackle welfare dependency," he said. "Second, we have to fix our banks, tax them to get our money back, regulate them properly and get them lending again. Third, we have to start making things again in this country. It's no policy to just borrow from the Chinese and buy goods made in China."

After a bruising 24 hours, Brown hoped to shine by showcasing his economic prowess. He has the most economic experience of the three, was chancellor of the exchequer — finance minister, essentially — for a decade, and presided over much of Britain's recent growth.

"Economies in Europe are in peril, and there is a risk of dragging us into recession," Brown said. "So I'm determined that nothing will happen in Britain that will put us back in that position. Shrink the economy now as the Conservatives want to do, and they risk your jobs, your living standards and your tax credits."

In two weeks since the first debate, Clegg has emerged as a credible new contender to lead Britain, shaking up the dominance of Labour and the Conservatives.

During his opening remarks, he called for tax breaks for Britain's poorest workers, but said services such as schools and hospitals need to be protected.

"We need to break up our banking system so that irresponsible bankers can never again put your businesses and your savings at risk," he said. "We have to rediscover our passion for innovation, for building things, not just placing bets on the money markets. We need fairer taxes, so that you don't pay any income tax on your first 10,000 pounds."

The showdown was the most combative yet, with Brown and Cameron repeatedly trading blows over other's policies on tax, and potential cuts to welfare.