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British parties square off on eve of election call

British parties square off on eve of election call

Britain's two main political parties squared off on the economy Monday, a day before Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to call an election likely to be dominated by the country's fragile economy.
In a podcast on the 10 Downing St. Web site, Brown said only his Labour Party can be trusted to nurture the nascent recovery, claiming Conservative plans to cut public spending risk tipping the economy back into recession.
Brown defended a planned hike to national insurance, a tax paid by employees and employers. The opposition Conservatives have said they will scrap the tax increase and implement immediate public spending cuts if they win the election.
On Monday the Conservatives unveiled an election poster showing a single green shoot emerging from a bleak landscape _ with a boot bearing the words "Job Tax" preparing to stamp on it.
"The choice in this election is very, very clear. You have either got Labour stamping out the recovery, stamping on the green shoots, or the Conservatives avoiding the jobs tax," said Conservative Treasury spokesman George Osborne.
Brown claimed Conservative spending cuts would imperil the recovery and compared the economy to injured soccer star Wayne Rooney, saying that "after an injury, you need support to recover. ... If you withdraw support too early, you risk doing more damage."
Manchester United player Rooney is recovering from ligament damage to his ankle, and his injury has worried fans who are looking ahead to June's soccer World Cup.
Britain must hold an election by June 3. Brown is expected to announce Tuesday that it will be held May 6, traveling to Buckingham Palace and ask Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve Parliament so campaigning can start.
The economy is likely to dominate the campaign as Britain emerges from its deepest recession in decades. All the main parties say they will trim spending and slash the country's 167 billion pound ($250 billion) deficit, but they differ on how deep, and how soon, to make cuts.
Last week almost 40 business leaders, including Virgin boss Richard Branson, said they supported the Conservative plan to scrap the tax increase.
The Conservatives lave led in opinion polls for months, but the gap has tightened to less than 10 percentage points, suggesting they may not win the majority of House of Commons seats needed to govern outright.
Conservative leader David Cameron said Sunday that a hung Parliament, in which no party has an absolute majority, would damage British interests and create uncertainty at a time of economic difficulty.
Cameron has sought to replace his party's fusty, right-wing image with a more modern brand of "compassionate Conservatism," and tried to draw more women and members of ethnic minorities to a party long dominated by affluent white men.
That image suffered a blow when home affairs spokesman Chris Grayling was recorded saying Christian bed-and-breakfast owners should be allowed to turn away gay couples.
Gay rights groups called for Grayling to be fired and Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said the remarks _ secretly recorded at a meeting of a right-of-center think tank last week _ showed the Tories had not changed.
"When the camera is on they say one thing and when the camera is off they say another," Mandelson said.
Osborne said Grayling would keep his job, and like other senior Tories had voted for legislation banning discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.