British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Conservative Party challenger, David Cameron, on Thursday opposed giving amnesty to illegal immigrants, saying that would send the wrong message to people looking to sneak into Britain.
A question on immigration turned into a flashpoint in the third and final televised debate among Mr. Brown, Mr. Cameron and Liberal Democratic candidate Nick Clegg in Birmingham.
Mr. Brown’s Labor Party slipped in the polls this week after the prime minister was caught on an open microphone describing a longtime party supporter as “bigoted” after she expressed concern about the influx of Eastern European immigrants.
In a bid to recover from the gaffe, Mr. Brown referred good-naturedly to the incident in his opening remarks. “There is a lot to this job, and as you saw yesterday - I don’t get all of it right,” he said. A former chancellor of the exchequer, he played up his economic credentials, adding, “But I do know how to run the economy in good times and in bad.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Brown had been critical of the Labor Party worker’s question on immigrants, but a day later, he said he was opposed to a proposal from Mr. Clegg’s party to provide amnesty to illegal immigrants.
“I can’t see how you send out anything but the worst possible message by giving amnesty to people who have come to this country illegally. … It encourages other people to come here illegally,” Mr. Brown said.
Mr. Cameron described immigration in Britain as “too high for too long.”
The Conservative leader proposed a cap on immigration, saying one of the benefits of stemming the flow would be allowing those already in the country to better integrate.
Describing the Liberal Democrats’ amnesty as a “complete mistake,” Mr. Cameron said, “We should be trying to reward people for doing the right thing.”
Mr. Clegg accused Mr. Cameron of mischaracterizing his amnesty plan. The proposal is to give amnesty to illegal immigrants who have been in the country for 10 years, provided they meet certain conditions.
Mr. Clegg said this plan would get people out of the shadows of society. Acknowledging that the plan might be controversial, he said, “Conservative and Labor governments created this problem … for those who have been here for a decade, speak English … it is better to get them out of the hands of the criminals and in the hands of the tax man.”
Mr. Clegg said politicians must be honest about immigration. It is impossible to cap the 80 percent of people who come to Britain from the European Union, he said, referring to Mr. Cameron’s suggestion.
The Liberal Democratic leader, who has seen his popularity soar following strong performances in the first debate, called for a dedicated border police force and said immigrants must be allowed to work only in regions where their skills are needed.
The British election is Thursday.
The candidates sparred on issues ranging from the economy, taxes and bonuses for bankers to Britain’s manufacturing sector.
Mr. Cameron described the economy as being stuck in a rut and said, “It’s no policy to borrow from the Chinese and buy goods made in China.”
Another heated moment in the debate came when the debaters clashed on the question of bonuses at banks.
Mr. Cameron described the “appalling bonuses” as “completely unacceptable,” suggested a need to regulate banks and said he agreed with President Obama’s plan to deal with the matter.
Mr. Clegg opposed bonuses to directors of banks, saying banks making losses should not be handing out such perks.
The prime minister defended his government’s decision to bail out banks, saying that not acting would have resulted in a collapse of the institutions.
“We will never allow them to behave in an irresponsible way again,” Mr. Brown said of the bankers.
Support for the Liberal Democrats has jumped dramatically - to about 30 percent of potential votes in opinion polls - from 18 percent, according to the Associated Press. The latest polls show Mr. Cameron’s party leading with about 33 percent and Mr. Brown’s Labor Party in third place with 28 percent.
Polls also show that the Liberal Democrats will get enough votes to deny both Labor and the Conservatives an overall majority. In this case, Britain could end up with a so-called hung Parliament, an outcome last seen in 1974. That government lasted eight months.