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British party leaders go head-to-head in election battle

world Updated: Apr 07, 2010 18:50 IST
London

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and opposition leader David Cameron traded barbs over the economy Wednesday in their final parliamentary clash before the May 6 election.

In a boisterous House of Commons session, each man accused the other of threatening Britain's recovery from recession, a key issue in what is expected to be one of the tightest election races in decades.

Brown's centre-left Labour party is battling for a historic fourth term against Cameron's centre-right Conservatives, who have seen their double-digit opinion poll lead shrink in recent weeks to just a few points.

Cameron is still tipped to win, however, and took the opportunity of what could be Brown's last prime minister's questions to try to turn the tables on Labour's claims that the Conservatives cannot be trusted on the economy.

The Conservatives want to scrap Labour's planned rise in payroll taxes, warning it will damage economic growth and any chance of cutting Britain's 167-billion-pound (254-billion-dollar, 188-billion-euro) deficit.

"This prime minister would wreck the recovery by putting a tax on every job," Cameron declared.

He also accused the prime minister of failing to properly fund Britain's armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying: "It is the last chance for this prime minister to show that he is accountable for the decisions he has made."

In response, Brown repeated his assertion that removing the rise in the payroll tax, known as National Insurance (NI), would take billions of pounds out of the economy at a time when it was most fragile.

"To withdraw six billion pounds from the economy now would put jobs at risk, put business at risk and put recovery at risk," he said.

Brown spun around a phrase Cameron once used against Tony Blair, when he was prime minister, telling the Conservative leader: "To think you were the future once."

Cameron will renew his attacks on Labour's tax plans in a visit to businesses in the northwest of England and Wales later Wednesday, as the campaigning gets underway in earnest.

Speaking as he set off from his London home by bicycle earlier, he said: "This is going to be a long campaign, I can feel that already."

Brown was to face a different kind of prime minister's questions when he fields queries from members of the public submitted via email or Twitter, in a session his party has dubbed "people's PMQs (prime minister's questions)".

Nick Clegg, leader of the centrist Liberal Democrats, has attacked both the main parties for being part of the "old" politics and in the Commons Wednesday said the government in particular had little to offer after 13 years in power.

"We all remember, back in 1997, the hope and the promise of this new government. Look at them now. You've failed, it's over, it's time to go," he said.

The Lib Dems have struggled to make their mark as the third party in a two-party system, although they could be key players if there is a hung parliament with neither Labour nor the Conservatives winning a majority.

Clegg indicated he would side with the party that wins the most votes, saying: "If there's a party that gets a stronger mandate than any other party then that party seems to me to have the moral right to seek to govern."

In the meantime they are fighting for as many votes as possible and have presented themselves as the only party that can clean up politics after a scandal over lawmakers' expenses last year.

"A vote for the Labour or the Conservative parties is a vote for corrupt politics," Clegg said.