Britain is set to go to the polls on Thursday to elect its 55th parliament amid a sobering last-minute warning for the new government to tackle the nation’s rising public debt level — highest in Europe — as its first priority.
The stark warning by Europe’s economic and monetary commissioner Olli Rehn came on Wednesday just as leaders of the three main political parties prepared to wind up three weeks of campaigning before an electorate of over 44 million.
“The first thing for a new government to do is agree on a convincing and ambitious policy programme of fiscal consolidation to start reducing the very high deficit, and stabilise the high debt level,” Rehn said. “This is by far the most important challenge for the new government. I trust that, whatever the colour of government, it will take these measures. It will need broad political consensus to achieve this key goal.”
Latest forecasts show Britain’s debt standing at 88 per cent of GDP in 2011-12, well above the Eurozone’s permitted limit of 60 per cent — an issue that has surfaced repeatedly during campaigning, although Britain is not a member of the Eurozone.
Voters expect swingeing public sector cuts by the new government that is to be formally inaugurated on May 25. But all three political parties — ruling Labour and the opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats — have shied away from spelling out the details of planned cuts.
The chances of the new government taking difficult decisions on the economic front are compromised by the prospects of political instability. The latest YouGov/Sun opinion poll on Wednesday put the Tories unchanged on 35 per cent, Labour up two points on 30 per cent after some late bravura speeches by Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Lib Dems down four points on 24 per cent.
This could give Labour 288 seats — well short of the 326 needed for majority — the Conservatives 261 and the Lib Dems 72, potentially presenting the nation its first hung parliament since 1974. The scenario that has been described as disastrous for the economy by Conservative shadow finance minister Kenneth Clarke.
Meanwhile, Brown and his rivals — Conservative leader David Cameron and the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg — spent the last day criss-crossing the nation in furious and sleepless rounds of campaigning trying to persuade undecided voters in marginal constituencies to vote for their party.