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Britain’s battling politicians turn to fragile economy

New growth figures emphasising the fragility of Britain’s economic recovery sparked fresh attacks between the main parties Friday, as they try to make headway in an increasingly tight election race.

A second party leaders’ televised debate Thursday night confirmed that where the main opposition Conservatives once looked set to trounce the ruling Labour party, the May 6 vote is now a three-way race with the Liberal Democrats.

Although the political landscape has radically changed, the economy remains the biggest issue of the campaign and all three parties seized on new figures showing weaker than expected growth Friday to attack their opponents.

Initial estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 0.2 percent in the first quarter of 2010, undershooting market expectations for 0.4 percent growth.

Brown, whose Labour government is battling for re-election after 13 years in power, 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 government action had helped the economy back on its feet and warned planned spending cuts by the main opposition Conservatives threatened this.

Conservative leader David Cameron, however, said the growth figures were “disappointing” and showed Labour was “too weak” to secure the recovery.

“We need a decisive government to take the steps to get the economy moving, to deal with our debts. We are not getting that from Labour — we need change to get that,” he said.

The figures were published just hours after Brown and Cameron slugged it out alongside Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in the second of three US-style TV debates ahead of polling day.

Clegg was the surprise winner of last week’s contest, sparking a huge boost in support for his party, which normally trails in third place.

Although commentators and polls suggested no clear winner from Thursday night’s debate, which focused on foreign policy, Clegg did enough to ensure the Lib Dems remained neck-and-neck with the Conservatives.

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 meanwhile scored 27.6 percent.

The results 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 TV debates, but his aides insist he is more about “substance” than style and the prime minister presented himself Friday as the only party leader who could secure Britain economic recovery.

“The risk of recession looms over the economy again and it will be difficult to restore confidence all around,” Brown said, adding that “novices today cannot be trusted with recovery”.

“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 said.

The Conservatives responded by saying 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.

On the growth data, Cameron said: “They are disappointing figures for the economy because we have had the very long, very deep recession and we need to get the economy moving.

“What we are seeing so far is a rather jobless recovery and a government that is too weak to get things done.”

Lib Dem economic spokesman Vince Cable said the figures “show that the promised recovery is barely visible” and warned of a “real danger of the UK going into a double dip recession”.

“The worst possible action is the Tory proposal to pull out the drip-feed when the patient is still in a critical condition,” he said.