Miliband 'wins' despite attacks
Ed Miliband was judged the "winner" of the second TV debate of the General Election campaign in an instant poll conducted after he clashed with leaders of smaller parties who urged him to form a "progressive" coalition to run the country.
The Labour leader came under concerted attack from Scottish and Welsh nationalists, but insisted there was a "huge difference" between his manifesto and that offered by David Cameron, rejecting claims he offered voters only a "Tory-lite" alternative.
And he issued a direct challenge to Mr Cameron - who was absent from the BBC showdown - to debate him head-to-head on TV before the May 7 election.
The challenge sparked an immediate response from Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who said on Twitter: "I'll debate with you Ed Miliband, even if David Cameron won't. Any time, any place, anywhere."
In a poll of 1,013 viewers conducted by Survation for the Daily Mirror, Mr Miliband came out on top, with 35% judging him the winner, against 31% for the Scottish National Party's Nicola Sturgeon, 27% for Ukip's Nigel Farage, 5% for the Greens' Natalie Bennett and 2% for Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood.
Some 43% said Mr Miliband would make the best Prime Minister, against 26% for Mr Farage, 25% for Ms Sturgeon, and 3% each for Ms Bennett and Ms Wood.
In an encouraging outcome for the Labour leader, some 45% of those who took part in the Survation poll after watching the debate said they would choose Mr Miliband in a straight choice for Prime Minister, against 40% for Mr Cameron.
The Conservative leader came under attack for failing to attend the debate, with Mr Miliband saying he had "chosen not to defend his record". Ms Sturgeon was applauded as she branded the Prime Minister's absence a "disgrace".
Mr Miliband concluded the broadcast with a direct message to the Prime Minister: "David, if you think this election is about leadership, then debate me one-on-one.
"I believe my ideas, my vision for the country are better for the working families of Britain. If you disagree, then prove it. Debate me and let the people decide."
But Conservative Leader of the Commons William Hague later told the BBC Mr Cameron had not been invited to the debate, which he said had made clear the SNP leader would be "in the driving seat" of a minority Labour administration, pushing Mr Miliband into "more and more extreme positions".
The debate saw Ms Sturgeon alternately attacking and wooing the Labour leader, as she urged him to take part in a progressive alliance which would make his policies bolder.
"We share a desire to see the back of the Tories but surely we do not want to replace the Tories with 'Tory lite'; we want to replace the Tories with something better", she told him.
"If Labour won't be bold enough on it's own, I think people should vote for parties who will hold Labour to account and make them bolder.
"I don't say there's no difference between Ed Miliband and David Cameron; I say there is not a big enough difference between Ed Miliband and David Cameron."
She was joined by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood who said Labour was "letting the Tories off the hook by committing to the Tories' spending plans".
Ms Wood challenged Mr Miliband to hold an emergency budget if he became prime minister "to reverse those cuts that are causing so much pain to so many people".
Mr Miliband hit back: "You can come along on the stage tonight and deny the need for difficult decisions and plan £7.6 billion of cuts in Scotland but I don't think it's going to convince anyone."
There was a "huge difference" between Tory cuts and Labour's deficit reduction plans, he said, adding: "I've fought the Tories all my life, unlike the SNP. You've fought Labour all your life, Nicola. I just don't buy it."
Mr Miliband said he would "reject" the arguments of parties trying to break up the United Kingdom
Ukip leader Nigel Farage repeatedly found himself isolated, as other leaders condemned his calls for the UK to quit the European Union and radically cut immigration.
He was accused by the Green Party's Natalie Bennett of "demonising" migrants and by Ms Sturgeon of "intolerance".
But he responded: "When you lose an argument in politics, you tend to start abusing your opponent, and we've seen quite a lot of that recently."
He said he was "the only person here saying what a lot of people at home are really thinking".
And he described the audience in Westminster's Central Hall who applauded his opponents as "remarkable ... even by the left-wing standards of the BBC" - something which prompted presenter David Dimbleby to insist that those attending had been independently chosen to represent the spread of opinion in the population.
Mr Miliband accused Mr Farage of seeking to "exploit people's fears", after the Ukip leader repeated his complaint that NHS money was being spent on drugs for HIV-positive foreigners.
Mr Farage - who loudly accused the Labour leader of "lying" about Ukip health policy - asked: "Is the job of the NHS to look after people here or is it to be an international health service? The vast majority of British people want this to be a national health service."
The Labour leader responded: "For the unity of our country, the diversity of our country, which is a strength, we have got to handle these issues in an appropriate, sensible and balanced - not exploitative - way and I'm afraid, Nigel, I think you have failed that test."
The SNP, Plaid and Green leaders all declared they would never seek a deal with the Tories in a hung Parliament and pressed the case for an anti-austerity alliance.
Mr Miliband - who has ruled out a formal coalition with the SNP - retorted: "You want to gamble on getting rid of a Tory government. I can guarantee that we get rid of a Tory government if you vote Labour."
But Ms Sturgeon won loud cheers as she told Mr Miliband he would not be forgiven if he turned his back on a chance to remove Tories from Government.
"If on May 8 there are more anti-Tory MPs in the House of Commons than there are Tory MPs then, if we work together, we can lock David Cameron out of Downing Street," she said.
"Is it the case that you would rather see David Cameron go back into Downing Street than work with the SNP? Surely that cannot be your position."
In his final statement, Mr Farage promised: " I will fight for the little man, for the little woman. I will fight for this country. This is the chance for the most radical political change we've seen for decades. Vote Ukip if you want things to change."
Ms Bennett urged people not to see the Greens as a wasted vote.
"Vote for what you believe in, for our future and future generations to come," she said. "It's time to vote for hope, it's time to be bold. Vote Green."
Speaking to the BBC after the programme, Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said Mr Clegg wanted to take part in the debate but was "excluded from this debate by the broadcasters at David Cameron's insistence".
Mr Alexander added: "Listening to that rabble tonight, people will be very worried about the future of their country if any of them are influencing the shape of the government in the next parliament."