Britain's battling politicians turn to fragile economy
New growth figures emphasising the fragility of Britain's economic recovery sparked fresh political battles Friday, as the main parties struggled to make headway in an increasingly tight election race.
Polls conducted after a second leaders' television debate on Thursday confirmed that where the main opposition Conservatives once looked set to oust the governing Labour Party, the May 6 vote is now a three-way race with the Liberal Democrats.
Yet while the political landscape has radically changed, the economy remains the biggest issue and all three parties seized on new figures showing weaker than expected growth Friday.
Initial estimates from the Office for National Statistics said gross domestic product increased by 0.2 percent in the first quarter of 2010, undershooting market expectations for 0.4 percent growth.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown welcomed the figures as proof that "recovery is definitely under way", after Britain escaped from a record recession in the last three months of 2009.
He said action by Labour, which is fighting for re-election after 13 years in power, had helped the economy back on its feet and warned that Conservative plans to cut spending threatened the recovery.
"We have shown we can manage the economy in good and bad times. The recovery is under way but it is still fragile. We must not let the Tories wreck it," he said at a hustings in Coventry, central England.
Conservative leader David Cameron, however, said the growth figures were "disappointing" and said Labour's refusal to cut spending and plans to increase payroll taxes after the election were dangerous.
"Labour is saying the economy will collapse unless they keep on wasting your money, then as things start getting better they want to impose this huge thwacking jobs tax," he told business leaders in London.
The rhetoric has stepped up as the race tightens. Brown, Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg clashed frequently in Thursday night's television debate, the second of three before polling day.
Clegg was the surprise winner of last week's contest, sparking a huge boost in support for his normally third-placed party and forcing his opponents to up their game for round two.
The snap opinion polls suggested no clear winner this time around, but Clegg did enough to ensure the Lib Dems remained neck-and-neck with the Conservatives -- an unprecedented situation.
An average of five instant surveys gave Clegg a narrow lead -- on 33.4 percent -- but only slightly ahead of Cameron, who was on 32.8 percent. Brown scored 27.6 percent.
The figures increase the likelihood that the vote would produce Britain's first hung parliament, where no party has an overall majority, since 1974.
Brown has fared worst from the television debates, but his aides insist he is more about "substance" than style and the prime minister presented himself Friday as a weighty alternative to the "novices" who were challenging him.
"I believe that there is one leader in this campaign with the experience, the judgment, the record and the team to be trusted with the recovery at this uncertain and fragile time," he told reporters in London.
But the Conservatives warned that recovery was far from secure, pointing to figures this week showing unemployment hit a 16-year high of 2.502 million people in the three months to February.
And Cameron repeated that a hung parliament would bring "indecision and paralysis... exactly what our economy doesn't need right now", urging voters to give his party a strong mandate to govern.
Clegg accused both Cameron and Brown of "trying to spread a message of fear, stopping people from making a choice", but admitted there was still a long way to go before Britain's recovery was secure.
© 2010 AFP