(AA) – Labour leader Ed Miliband ruled out Thursday any form of coalition or deal with Scottish nationalists if his party is unable to form a majority government after the U.K. general election.
“If the price of having a Labour government was a deal or a coalition with the Scottish National Party, then it is not going to happen,” Miliband said.
The leader of Britain’s center-left main opposition party made his comments during the BBC leaders’ debate, which was held exactly a week before the U.K.’s May 7 general election.
Prime Minister David Cameron of the center-right Conservative Party and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the centrist Liberal Democrats Party also took part in the debate.
The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government in 2010 after elections in the same year ended in a hung parliament.
Each leader appeared separately for 30 minutes to take questions from a lively and hostile audience in Leeds, northern England, on the BBC’s flagship Question Time program.
A snap ICM poll conducted for the liberal-left Guardian newspaper after the debate said Cameron had won, with 44 percent of respondents saying he performed the best. Miliband came second in with 38 percent and Clegg third with 19 percent.
– ‘People in Scotland… would never forgive the Labour Party’
“I am not going to sacrifice the future of our country, the unity of our country,” Miliband said. “I’m not going to give in to SNP demands around (nuclear deterrent) Trident, around the deficit or anything like that.”
His cast-iron rejection of any potential Labour-SNP coalition or looser confidence-and-supply agreement, even if this meant staying in opposition, dominated the debate.
“I am not going to start bartering away my manifesto, whatever the outcome of the election, even if I don’t win a majority,” he said.
The left-wing separatist Scottish National Party is on course to win every seat in Scotland in the U.K.’s general election next week, according to a poll released Wednesday.
The Ipsos Mori poll, conducted for Scottish television channel STV News, gave the SNP 54 percent support in Scotland — a 34-point lead over their main rivals, the Labour Party.
According to prediction by the Electoral Calculus website, the SNP would win all 59 seats in Scotland on a uniform swing, with Labour losing all 41 seats it won in 2010.
The popularity of the SNP has risen exponentially in Scotland after a defeated independence referendum on Sept. 18 last year.
Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats all campaigned against Scottish independence.
The SNP’s rise threatens Labour’s ability to form a majority government after next week’s election.
The prospect of a minority Labour government propped up by Scottish nationalists has become one of the key focuses of the 2015 election campaign.
“If Ed Miliband is saying that he would rather let the Tories (Conservatives) back into government than work with the SNP to keep them out, people in Scotland and indeed elsewhere in the U.K. would never forgive the Labour Party,” Stewart Hosie, deputy leader of the SNP, said in a statement.
Though Miliband’s hardline anti-SNP stance gained him applause from the audience, he was pilloried over his predecessors handling of the economy.
Asked by an audience member if the he thought the 1997 to 2010 Labour government had spent too much, an unrepentant Miliband replied, “No, I don’t.”
“There are schools that have been rebuilt in our country, there were hospitals that were rebuilt… which would not have happened. There was a global financial crisis which caused the deficit to rise,” he said.
An audience member said Miliband’s refusal to admit Labour had overspent was “absolutely ludicrous.”
– ‘How can I possibly vote for you…?’
“We have made difficult decisions over these last five and I accept not every decision has been easy for people,” Cameron said, warning that refusing to undergo welfare reform would ultimately lead to “deep cuts” in public services.
The British premier faced tough questions about the precise nature of his party’s proposed cuts to welfare.
“It takes a long time to fix the mess that I was left (with),” he said. “We are half way through a building job.”
The Conservatives have pledged £12 billion in cuts to welfare spending over the course of the next parliament, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies said earlier this week that the center-right party had only outlined where 10 percent of these cuts would come from.
The governing party responded by saying that as they saved £21 billion over the past five years, they could be trusted to find £12 billion in savings over the next parliament.
“I think you are either deceiving the British public or you know exactly what you are going to do but you are refusing to give specifics. I find that very difficult to understand,” an audience member told Cameron. “How can I possibly vote for you on that basis?”
The audience continued with the theme of welfare cuts, pressing the prime minister on his commitments to child benefits and tax credits, which aim to help parents cope with the cost of bringing up children.
A senior Liberal Democrat politician leaked Thursday a secret Conservative plan to cut £8 billion in child benefits in 2012.
The proposed cuts were unveiled to the Guardian by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.
They date back to an internal government document from June 2012 drawn up by Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan-Smith.
They were due to be announced in 2012, but the proposed reforms were dropped — apparently under Liberal Democrat pressure.
“This report that was out today is something I rejected at the time as prime minister and I reject again today,” Cameron said.
He gave the audience an “absolute guarantee” that child benefits and tax credits would not be cut, because “It is the key part of family’s budgets in this country. That’s not what we need to change.”
Clegg defended his colleague’s decision to leak the internal government document.
The Conservatives have “a very unfair plan to balance the books, which departs from what we’ve done in coalition and I think we are entitled to say: ‘What are you going to do? Who are you going to hurt?'” he said.
Cameron insisted that he was fighting for a majority government and refused to speculate on what would happen in the event of a hung parliament, saying he did not want to do a deal in a “darkened room with Nick Clegg.”
He did, however, say that a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU would be a “red line” in any coalition negotiations.
“The British people really do deserve a referendum on whether to stay in a reformed European Union or leave and I’ve been very clear that I will not lead a government that does not deliver that pledge,” he said.
– ‘I have said sorry’
“Charming,” Clegg replied to an audience member who asked if he had any plans to find a new job after he becomes unemployed next week. “No I don’t.”
He was, as predicted, grilled on tuition fees and broken promises.
In 2010, the Liberal Democrats ran on a left-of-Labour platform with their core pledge being the total abolishment of tuition fees.
That their candidates took photos with students with this pledge written on placards during the election campaign only added to the sense of fury and anguish when the coalition government they helped form not only kept tuition fees in place — but tripled them to £9,000 per year.
“I got it wrong. I have said sorry… I hope you can give me credit for the many other things I have put into practice,” Clegg said. “What we did was get the fairest deal we could in the circumstances.”
Considering the damage the tuition fees fiasco has done to his party, Clegg emphasized that he had been “much clearer” on the “red lines” for any future coalition, namely that education spending had to increase by £5 billion by 2020.
The party’s approval ratings have plummeted to unfathomable depths in opinion polls and struggled to recover ever since.
Nevertheless, asked if he would have still gone into coalition in 2010 with the benefit of hindsight, he said, “Yes, absolutely. The more I look back on it, the more proud I am.”
The “plucky and brave way to put country before party” may have had a short-term political cost, he said, but a large part of their manifesto was eventually implemented in office.
Accepting that some voters could not forgive his party, Clegg also defended the decision to enter into coalition as being in the nation’s economic interest at the time, adding that it was the “democratic” thing to do, as the Conservatives were the largest party in 2010.
He said he would once again talk first with the largest party after next week’s election, if and when no single party wins an overall majority.
“He (David Cameron) keeps talking about darkened rooms, as does Ed Miliband,” Clegg quipped.
“If either of them still think they are going to win a majority, they need to go and lie down in that darkened room.”