Britain sets election date
Countdown to 6 May election as Gordon Brown plays the 'character' card
Date: 11 March 2010
By David Maddox
GORDON Brown yesterday set the stage for a 6 May election by announcing a date for the government's last budget before going to the polls.
In a major speech in the City, the Prime Minister set out a clear message that the election would centre on his personal character, integrity and ability to steer the UK through the "stormy waters of the economic crisis".
In an election set to be dominated by the first television debates of the major party leaders, Mr Brown's hopes that his experience and actions will win the day against the untested David Cameron.
But with the Budget set to be unveiled by the Chancellor Alistair Darling on 24 March, questions remain over whether Mr Brown is willing to tackle Britain's £1 trillion debt and defend the country's triple A credit rating.
However, he attempted to quell some concerns by announcing a public sector pay freeze, a measure being lobbied for by business organisation such as the CBI. But it was his vision of seeing Britain through the economic crisis which dominated the speech.
The Prime Minister declared that only he had the "character" to lead Britain through to economic recovery and he warned that "ideologically-driven" Tory plans for cuts risked tipping it back into recession.
He went on: "It is for other people to judge but I believe that character is not about telling people what they want to hear but about telling them what they need to know.
"It is about having the courage to set out your mission and the courage to take the tough decisions and stick to them without being blown off-course, even when the going is difficult.
"For better or for worse, with me what you see is what you get."
The speech was a riposte to the latest assault by the Tory command made in the City last week.
Conservative leader David Cameron, his shadow chancellor George Osborne and shadow business secretary Ken Clarke then warned of an economic Armageddon if Labour was to win again or emerge as the biggest party.
They claimed that Britain would lose its triple A credit rating leading to dramatic service cuts and tax rises as well as hitting personal loans and mortgages.
And they suggested that such a turn of events would leave Britain's democracy at the mercy of its creditors.
The attack appeared to have worked with polls seeing the Tory lead over Labour widen again after a recent comeback by the government.
Yesterday, Mr Osborne continued the message stating: "The biggest risk to the British economy is five more years of Gordon Brown. That was confirmed today in a speech that offered no new ideas.
"How telling that minutes after he sat down his speech was derailed by new statistics showing manufacturing shrinking.
"Gordon Brown's policies aren't working and his plans for the future have been widely criticised by business leaders and credit rating agencies."
And Mr Brown was warned that if he wants to make the election about his ability and record he is in for a lot of close scrutiny.
Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable said: "Gordon Brown's speech shows he is leading with a weak hand.
"It's very difficult to see how the man who claimed to have abolished boom and bust can campaign on his stewardship of the economy after the greatest bust for decades.
"The only reason he is, of course, is because the Conservatives are even worse. The only consistent thing about their economic policy is that they have been consistently wrong.
"The Budget must clearly spell out where Labour intend to make spending cuts in order to tackle the budget deficit. All we have seen from the Prime Minister today is more waffle."
A 24 March Budget probably means that the election will be held on 6 May the same day as the English council elections.
The other possible date was 15 April before the crucial GDP figures come out the following week, but a 24 March Budget does not leave sufficient time to hold an election on that day.
The only other option is to leave it to the last possible minute and go to the country on 3 June, seen as unlikely by most commentators.
But yesterday Mr Brown's opponents said that they were eager to get on with the fight and called on the Prime Minister to name the day.
Conservative Party Chairman Eric Pickles said: "Now Gordon Brown has finally stopped dithering and announced a budget date he should follow suit and announce a date for the election.
"Of course, given the stranglehold the union barons have on the party he may be waiting on Charlie Whelan to give him the green light on a date."
But there was a warning from the SNP that the Budget will simply confirm major budget cuts in Scotland as well as the UK.
SNP Treasury spokesman Stewart Hosie, who is also their general election campaign co-ordinator, said: "We are ready to go at any time our candidates are working hard on the ground.
"This election is going to be about the economy, there is no doubt about that."
And on Mr Brown's claims over his record, he said: "If it is going to be about the record of this Labour government it is one that contrived to lose a million manufacturing jobs before the recession and has greater unemployment than when it came to power in 1997."
He added: "First of all we have to prepare for a budget and what we should see is confirmation that both Labour and the Tories have been hiding their plans for severe cuts behind warm words.
"This will mean major cuts for Scotland and the UK as a whole."