Battling British PM backed by economists

LONDON: Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned against risking Britain's fragile economic recovery Friday, stressing growth before deficit cuts, as top economists backed his plans ahead of a general election.

Brown said now was "not the time to put the recovery at risk," criticising David Cameron's opposition Conservative Party -- tipped by opinion polls to win an election likely in May -- for focusing on controlling a massive deficit.

His comments came as more than 60 leading economists, including Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Solow, backed government plans to delay spending cuts as Britain crawls out of its worst recession since World War II.

Figures last month showed growth of just 0.1 percent in the last quarter of 2009, and figures for the first quarter of this year are due at the end of April, just days before an election widely expected to be held on May 5.

"Nothing is inevitable -- neither progress nor retreat," Brown said in a keynote speech to a conference of European centre-left parties in London.

"This is not the time to put the recovery at risk, this is the time to make sure that growth and jobs are secured."

He said right-wingers -- which include the Conservatives -- were using "legitimate concerns about deficits to scare people into accepting a bleak and austere picture of the future" at the expense of public services.

"Instead of helping the recovery, in our country Conservative dislike bordering on hatred of government action would risk the recovery now," he added.

Brown said he does want to bring the deficit down and had a strategy to at least halve it over the next four years, leading to cuts in some sectors and increased taxes.

But the Conservatives -- who polls put around nine points ahead of Brown's centre-left Labour -- want to start cuts to Britain's budget deficit, forecast to be 178 billion pounds for the current fiscal year, sooner than Labour.

"Business organisations, credit rating agencies, international investors and entrepreneurs like Richard Branson all agree that the government does not have a credible plan to deal with the deficit," a Conservative spokesman said in response to Brown's comments.

"As a result, they are putting the recovery at risk of higher mortgage rates. This is the biggest risk to the recovery."

Despite Friday's backing for Brown from dozens of economists in a letter to the Financial Times, thinkers are split on the issue.

In another letter to this week's Sunday Times, figures including Kenneth Rogoff, an ex-chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, said whoever wins the election must cut the deficit faster than the government envisages.

"In the absence of a credible plan, there is a risk that a loss of confidence in the UK?s economic policy framework will contribute to higher long-term interest rates and/or currency instability, which could undermine the recovery," the letter said.

By contrast, the FT letter argued that history was "littered with examples of premature withdrawal of the government stimulus, from the US in 1937 to Japan in 1997."

Finance minister Alistair Darling is to deliver his annual budget next month.

Other prime ministers attending the Progressive Governance conference where Brown spoke include George Papandreou of crisis-hit Greece, Spain's Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and Norway's Jens Stoltenberg.