Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown reacts during a question and answer session following his speech to delegates at the annual Trades Union Congress in Liverpool, England, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009. Source: AP

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown reacts during a question and answer session following his speech to delegates at the annual Trades Union Congress in Liverpool, England, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009. Source: AP

LONDON: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that hard economic times will mean substantial cuts to government spending on the country's already strained public services.

The announcement, which reverses overly optimistic statements about economic growth, sets the stage for a bruising general election battle with the opposition Conservative Party over who can best manage the country's dwindling financial resources.

"Labour will cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programs and cut lower priority budgets," Brown told a conference of the Trades Union Congress in the northern English city of Liverpool.

Brown previously attacked plans set out by the Conservatives to cut public spending in order to lower government debt. He said in June that a looming national election, which Brown must call by June 2010, would be a contest between "Tory (Conservative) cuts versus Labour investment."

George Osborne, Treasury spokesman for the main opposition Conservatives, said Brown was forced into an embarrassing reversal after allowing government debts to become unsustainable.

"He and his style of politics have been comprehensively defeated," Osborne said.

An opinion poll published Tuesday indicated that half of British voters would prefer anyone other than Brown to lead the country. The Populus survey published Tuesday by The Times of London newspaper found 48 percent of those questioned agreed that "literally anyone" other than Brown would be a better national leader.

Support for Brown's Labour Party was at 27 percent, behind the Conservatives on 41 percent.

Populus interviewed 1,504 adults by telephone Sept. 11-13. No margin of error was given, but in samples of a similar size it is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

At the end of July, Britain's net debt stood at 800.8 billion pounds ($1.315 trillion), or about 57 percent of the value of the country's total output.

Many economists fear that the country's debt burden may actually exceed gross domestic product in the next couple of years amid mounting debt interest payments and rising unemployment costs.

Treasury chief Alistair Darling said in his April budget that the figure would likely peak just below 80 percent of GDP in 2013-2014, but his forecasts were due to be revised soon.

"We have a plan to halve the deficit over a four-year period," Darling told BBC radio. "That does not mean you are going into some sort of dark age where the lights go off and nothing happens."

Brown declined to specify in which areas spending cuts would be made, but said plans would be published in the coming months. "Labour will not support cuts in the vital front line services on which people depend," he said, without identifying which programs would be protected.

The Conservatives have pledged not to make cuts to Britain's health and international aid budgets.