British leaders trade blows over fragile economy

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The last growth figures to be published before the general election emphasised the fragility of Britain's recovery and led to party leaders trading accusations over their economic plans on Friday.

Figures showed that gross domestic product increased by 0.2 percent in the first three months of this year, a lower rate than had been expected.

The day after the three party leaders clashed in their second TV debate ahead of the May 6 election, Prime Minister Gordon Brown welcomed the figures as proof that "recovery is definitely under way".

But with polls showing that a three-way election race was now a reality, the leader of the main opposition Conservatives, David Cameron, warned that the figures meant Britain could not afford the uncertainty of a hung parliament.

Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, whose performances in the TV debates have seen his party enjoy a surge in support, said the figures "showed we are nowhere near coming out of the dark shadow of this very deep recession".

Labour leader Brown produced a more prime ministerial performance in Thursday's debate than in the first showdown and on Friday he strongly defended his party's performance in guiding Britain out of a record recession.

He said 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.

Cameron hit back that 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.

Cameron again focused on what he believes is the danger of the election producing a hung parliament -- in which no party holds an overall majority -- for the first time since 1974.

He claimed an inconclusive election result could cause the fragile economy to "flounder".

"The indecision and paralysis that would come from a hung Parliament is just what the economy does not need now," the Tory leader said.

But Clegg, whose party stands to gain most from a hung parliament, accused Brown and Cameron of "trying to spread a message of fear, stopping people from making a choice."

The snap polls after Thursday's debate suggested no clear winner, but Clegg did enough to ensure the Lib Dems remained neck-and-neck with the Conservatives -- an unprecedented situation for a party normally stuck in third place.

An average of five 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 Liberal Democrats' election co-ordinator Danny Alexander said the party was convinced that their newfound popularity has led to the Conservatives launching "an orchestrated smear campaign" against Clegg.

In Thursday's debate, Clegg laughed off claims that he once received regular payments into his bank account from businessmen.

Asked about the claims on a campaign visit to Newcastle in northeast England, Clegg said: "All I know of course is that there are plenty of people about who are worried that things are not going according to their plan.

"Their plan was just an effortless game of pass the parcel between Labour and the Conservative Party so there are lots of people both in politics and parts of the press who don't like the fact that we are saying maybe we can do something different this time."

© 2010 AFP

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