Gordon Brown will seek today to focus on the economy as he tries to claw back the initiative in the British General Election campaign from the resurgent Liberal Democrats.
The Prime Minister acknowledged yesterday that the election race had been thrown “wide open” following Nick Clegg’s triumph in the first leaders’ debate.
A clutch of weekend opinion polls showed an upsurge in support for the Lib Dems, with one even putting them in the lead.
Further evidence of the surge in support for the Lib Dems came in a YouGov poll for The Sun which put Mr Clegg’s party in the lead with 33% (up three points since a similar poll on Saturday).
The Conservatives were on 32% (down one point), with Labour trailing on 26% (down two).
However, the same survey found that just 51% said they knew “a lot” or “a fair amount” about Mr Clegg’s policies, against 48% who said they knew “a little” or “hardly anything”.
And when YouGov described 10 key Liberal Democrat policies to those being questioned, only three – on tax, public sector pay and voting reform – won majority support. Respondents opposed policies on Europe, the euro, prisons, immigration, universities and energy, as described by the pollsters.
While Mr Brown conceded that he had been outdone on style and presentation, he predicted Labour would regain support as the focus shifted to issues of “substance” – most notably the economy.
He will however almost certainly face questions about the latest analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which found the Britain did less than other leading economies to reduce its deficit in the lead-up to the financial crisis.
The respected think-tank said Labour had cut the level of borrowing and debt inherited from the Conservatives in 1997, but added the “vast majority” of other nations had gone further in strengthening public finances.
Its briefing note said: “While the UK public finances were in better shape when the financial crisis began than they were when Labour came to power, the UK was in a worse position relative to most comparable countries.”
The high debt levels going into crisis meant the UK would have “one of the weakest fiscal positions in 2010” after a deterioration in public finances only exceeded by Ireland and Iceland over the past three years, it said.
For the Tories, shadow chief treasury secretary Philip Hammond said that the findings represented a damning indictment of Mr Brown’s stewardship of the economy.
“This is a damning verdict on Gordon Brown’s economic mistakes which left Britain badly prepared for the longest and deepest recession since the war,” he said.
“This independent demolition of Gordon Brown’s record reinforces the need for change – and reminds us, once again, why Britain can’t afford another five years of his debt, waste and taxes.”
Business Secretary Lord Mandelson said the Tories’ economic plans would derail the recovery and turn public services into “a do-it-yourself wish-list from which the well-off could afford to opt out and everyone else would have to put up with”.
In his latest election bulletin, he acknowledged that it was becoming “the most fluid and unpredictable” campaign in recent memory and said that Labour were now the “underdogs”.
However he predicted that support for the Liberal Democrats would fade once the public came to understand their policy agenda – including plans to cut child tax credits and child trust funds and an “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.
“My bet is that most people will not follow through on their current flirtation with Nick,” he said.
Meanwhile Tory leader David Cameron – whose hopes of reaching No 10 would be hard hit by a sustained Lib Dem resurgence – is expected to hammer home his message that only an outright Conservative victory can ensure there is no return to Downing Street for Mr Brown.
“It is the Conservatives who offer decisive change – anything else and you risk being stuck with what you have got,” he said in an interview with The Guardian.
Mr Clegg will seek to capitalise on the momentum generated by his appearance in the leaders’ debate, with the launch of a £3 billion “green” job creation package, investing in housing, transport, and renewable energy.
“I will be focusing on the most important issue of all in this election: how we can build a new economy from the rubble of the old,” he said.
“Under governments from the old parties, economic policy was made entirely subservient to the needs of just one square mile – the City of London.
“Our vision of a new economy aims to provide growth that lasts for all 100,000 square miles of the UK. We have detailed plans to make our economy environmentally, financially and socially sustainable.”