The leaders of seven political parties are gearing up for a live, two-hour televised general election debate.
The contest, announced after weeks of wrangling, will be the only time Conservative PM David Cameron and Labour’s Ed Miliband will face one another in a debate before polling day.
The Lib Dems, SNP, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens will also take part.
Norman Smith, BBC assistant political editor, said the stakes were in a way highest for Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband.
He said the smaller parties had less to lose, but tonight’s debate would be a “visible symbolic demonstration of the death of two-party politics.”
Elsewhere on Thursday, with 35 days before polling day:
- Labour claimed more than 1,000 Sure Start centres face being axed under a Conservative government
- Chancellor George Osborne will challenge Labour to commit to phase two of the HS2 rail scheme, claiming shadow chancellor Ed Balls has threatened to cancel it
- Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown will claim the SNP’s spending plans would “break the hearts of the poor”
- The SNP’s John Swinney said Labour support “Tory-style cuts”
- The Muslim Council of Britain urged Muslim voters to press candidates to commit to tackling Islamophobia
- The debate will be shown on ITV from 20:00 to 22:00 BST
- It takes place at Media City in Salford with a studio audience of about 200 people
- After a draw for podium places, the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett will take the left-hand position followed, from left to right, by Mr Clegg for the Liberal Democrats, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, Mr Miliband, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Mr Cameron
- Ms Bennett will speak first in the opening statements of the debate while Mr Cameron will speak last
- Each leader will be allowed to give an uninterrupted one-minute answer to questions posed by members of the studio audience
- There will then be up to 18 minutes of debate on each question; in all four “substantial election questions” will be addressed
- Leaders will not see the questions in advance and an “experienced editorial panel” will select them
The election debate, which will also be shown live on the BBC News channel and streamed on the online election live page, will be moderated by Julie Etchingham.
There had been doubt over whether a debate between leaders – first held in 2010 when then PM Gordon Brown, Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg participated in three events – would be repeated before the 7 May poll.
Mr Cameron had rejected the initial proposals because they did not include the Greens, and also said any debate should take place after the start of the campaign on 30 March.
The final schedule also included a live question and answer programme featuring David Cameron and Ed Miliband appearing separately, shown on on Channel 4 and Sky News last week, and a BBC debate involving opposition party leaders, moderated by David Dimbleby on 16 April.
There will also be a special Question Time on BBC One, a week before polling day, with Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg appearing separately to answer questions from a studio audience.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which has eight MPs, has strongly criticised its exclusion from the programme.
David Cowling, editor, BBC Political Research
Pretty slim pickings: YouGov delivered a one point Labour lead – 36% compared with 35% for the Conservatives, with the Lib Dems on 7%, UKIP on 12% and the Greens on 5%.
But maybe time to remind ourselves that the crucial bit we often miss is that the real significance of these polls is not where they are now but what is the difference between now and the 2010 general election.
YouGov suggests neck and neck at present; but 36% for Labour is up 6% on 2010: 35% for the Conservatives now is down 2% on 2010. So, what appears neck and neck is, in reality, a 4% swing from Conservative to Labour since the last election: a swing that would take Labour into largest single party territory and well on its way towards a majority of its own (Scotland permitting).
As we navigate our way through all those polls to come, remember to measure every one of them against the crucial 2010 figures: Conservative 37%, Labour 30%, Lib Dem 24%, UKIP 3% and Green 1%.
The Liberal Democrats said the likelihood of a hung Parliament made it important for people to see seven leaders side by side.
“This debate matters because you get to choose who you want walking through the front door of Downing Street with David Cameron or Ed Miliband,” a party spokesman said.
“So the question is: which leader do you want influencing the future of Britain?”
Ms Sturgeon said the “historic” debate would show the “mould of two and three-party politics at Westminster has been broken”.
During a campaigning visit on Wednesday, Mr Miliband said he would value the chance to talk directly to the British people about “how I want to change the country”.