No clear victor in 7-way TV clash
There was no clear winner in the only TV debate pitting seven political leaders against one another ahead of the May 7 general election.
Ed Miliband topped one poll, the Scottish National Party's Nicola Sturgeon another and the Labour leader tied with David Cameron and Nigel Farage in first place in a third.
After the Prime Minister refused to face Mr Miliband in a head-to-head televised debate, the two-hour ITV showdown was the only chance for the two men to confront one another on key election issues like the economy, jobs, immigration and health.
Mr Cameron accused the Labour leader of planning more debt, taxes, borrowing and spending and urged voters to let Conservatives complete their "long-term economic plan", telling them: "What my plan is about is basically one word - security. Security for you, for your family, for our country."
In a clear effort to bolster his credentials as an alternative premier, Mr Miliband repeatedly described what he would do "if I am prime minister". He accused the PM of wanting to talk about the past rather than the future, and said: "Some people will tell you that this is as good as it gets for Britain. I say Britain can do so much better than it has done over the last five years."
Mr Farage repeatedly accused the other leaders of being "all the same" and said he was the only one who wanted to control immigration by pulling Britain out of the European Union.
But he clashed with Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood, who accused him of "scaremongering" and said he should be ashamed of himself after he raised the issue of foreign nationals receiving HIV treatment on the NHS and said: "We've got to put our own people first".
Nick Clegg sought to distance the Liberal Democrats from the two biggest parties, directly taking on Mr Cameron over what he termed "ideologically driven cuts" and challenging Mr Miliband to use the opportunity presented by the debate to apologise publicly for "crashing the economy" as part of the last Labour administration.
At one point, Mr Cameron was interrupted by a heckler from the 200-strong studio audience, Victoria Prosser, who demanded to be heard as she protested at the treatment of military veterans, shouting: "There's more of us than there is of them and they are not listening to us."
Mr Farage claimed an early advantage, with 24% of viewers polled at the half-way point by ComRes for ITV News rating him the best performer, ahead of Mr Miliband on 21% and Mr Cameron on 19%.
But by the end, the picture was less clear, with Mr Miliband leading an ICM poll in The Guardian taking 25% of support, just ahead of Mr Cameron on 24%, with Mr Farage on 19%. A ComRes post-debate poll for ITV News had Miliband, Cameron and Farage tied in first place on 21%, with Sturgeon on 20%. And a YouGov poll had the SNP leader top with 28% backing, followed by Nigel Farage (20%), David Cameron (18%), Ed Miliband (15%).
Mr Cameron enjoyed a strong lead in a key section of the ComRes poll, rated most capable of leading the country by 40% of the 1,120 viewers taking part, well ahead of Mr Miliband on 28%.
In fraught exchanges on health, Mr Miliband told the Prime Minister he had "broken your bond of trust" with voters on the NHS by imposing a top-down reorganisation that he had promised to avoid.
Mr Cameron said the Labour leader had privately planned to "weaponise" the NHS, adding: "For most of us, the NHS is a service for our families, not a political weapon."
Mr Miliband retorted: "I would say to everybody at home: use your vote in this election as a weapon to fight for the future of our National Health Service because it has to be rescued from you, David.
"You have failed the British people, you have broken your bond of trust on the National Health Service. They believed you were another kind of Conservative but it has gone backwards on your watch and they won't trust you again."
There was opposition from smaller parties to the expansion of private sector involvement in the NHS, with Ms Bennett saying Greens would "take the whole market mechanism out of the NHS" and allow 0% to go to profit.
On immigration, Mr Farage said ordinary people had "paid a very high price" so corporate employers could benefit from cheap labour.
He said: "As members of the EU, what can we do to control immigration? Let me tell you - nothing."
But Mr Clegg said he would not "spread fear" about immigration and wanted Britain to remain "a decent, open-hearted, generous-minded nation who welcome people who want to come here and play by the rules".
Mr Cameron accused the Ukip leader of being "a back door to a Labour government" which would not deliver a referendum on Britain's EU membership.
And Mr Miliband said Mr Cameron had marginalised Britain in Europe. He added: "I don't think our place lies outside the EU. I think that would be a disaster for jobs, a disaster for families and business."
In the most fiery exchange of the evening, Mr Farage was slapped down by Ms Wood after he said 60% of the 7,000 HIV diagnoses in the UK each year involved foreign nationals who "can come into Britain from anywhere in the world and get diagnosed with HIV and get the retro-viral drugs that cost up to £25,000 per year per patient".
"What we need to do is put the NHS there for British people and families, who in many cases have paid into the system for decades," said the Ukip leader.
Ms Wood responded: "This kind of scaremongering is dangerous, it divides communities and it creates stigma to people who are ill, and I think you ought to be ashamed of yourself."
Mr Farage replied: "Well, it's true. I'm sorry, we've got to put our own people first."
Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband clashed on the economy in the debate at ITV's MediaCityUK studio in Salford, with the PM saying the Labour leader "still thinks the last Labour government didn't tax too much, borrow too much and spend too much".
He added: "And if you don't understand the mistakes of the past, you can't provide the leadership of the future."
A Miliband administration would "go into your monthly payslip and take your money out" in taxes, warned Mr Cameron.
"I think if we go back to the tax, the waste, the spending, all the things that got us into a mess in the first place, we wouldn't help working people, we would hurt working people," said the Conservative leader.
Mr Miliband insisted that Labour would cut the deficit every year and balance the books, but "do it in a fairer and a better way than has been tried for the last five years", increasing the minimum wage to £8 and banning exploitative zero-hours contracts.
Mr Cameron responded: "Never mind zero-hours; with Ed there'd be zero jobs."
Mr Clegg said voters should not have to put up with a "dismal choice" of cutting too much or borrowing too much, promising: "We will cut less than the Conservatives and we will borrow less than Labour."
For Plaid Cymru, Ms Wood said: "The austerity experiment has failed. So much pain for so little gain. The banks have had a bailout, it's time now for the people to have a bailout and it's time for us to invest in public services and job creation."
As debate became increasingly fraught, Mr Farage shouted "What's going on here? Get real, please" and accused all his rivals of either ignoring the "massive problem" of the deficit or failing to deal with it in government.
Ms Sturgeon said the country could no longer afford austerity, and told voters in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that, while SNP MPs would "stand up for Scotland" in Westminster, they would also offer "friendship" to the other nations of the UK and help them bring about the change they wanted.
She said the exchange showed why the "old boys' network" at Westminster needed to be broken up.
Ms Wood said: "Austerity is not inevitable; it is a choice. For Wales to be strong - like Scotland - Plaid Cymru must be strong."
Mr Cameron had the last word in the debate, giving the final statement, in which he told voters: " This is an amazing country and we are on our way back. There's a fundamental choice at this election. Stick with the plan, and with the team who brought that plan, because it's working and it's helping. Or put it all at risk by the people who gave us the spending, the debt, the taxes and the waste.
"I say let's stick to the plan that's working, let's not go back to square one, let's finish the job we started."
Mr Miliband declared: "I believe that it is when working people succeed that Britain succeeds.
"If you believe that too, I ask for your support and let's bring the change that Britain needs."
Ms Bennett tried to persuade those considering a vote for the Greens that it would not be "wasted", urging them: "V ote for what you believe in. You don't have to go on voting for the lesser of two evils."
And Mr Clegg urged the electorate to "make sure that we don't lurch this way or that" on May 7, by voting for a country which was " stable, strong and fair".
But Mr Farage said the other leaders had shown they were "all the same", while Ukip offered "plain-spoken patriotism".
"They don't understand the thoughts, hopes and aspirations of ordinary people in this country," he said. "If you want things to be shaken up and to change properly, you've got to put more Ukip MPs in Westminster."