Britain's Cameron puts economy centre stage in re-election campaign

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaking as he stands in front of a new Conservative Party poster after unveiling it at Dean Clough Mill in Halifax, northern England, on Jan 2, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron speaking as he stands in front of a new Conservative Party poster after unveiling it at Dean Clough Mill in Halifax, northern England, on Jan 2, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - Prime Minister David Cameron stepped up his drive to be re-elected in four months, opening billboard campaigning on Friday with assertions that his Conservative party has nurtured Britain's economic recovery.

Narrowly trailing the opposition Labour party in most opinion polls ahead of a May 7 national election, Mr Cameron hopes to convert strong economic competence ratings into victory in what looks set to be one of most closely-fought contests in modern British history.

With the rise of the anti-EU UK Independence Party, the Scottish National Party and others, one or even two smaller parties could find themselves wielding outsized influence if the Conservatives or Labour have to scramble build a minority government.

Labour accuses Mr Cameron of presiding over what it calls "a cost of living crisis" and challenges his claims to have brought national debt under control, accusing the government of borrowing much more than planned.

In riposte, the Conservative poster shows Britain's red, white and blue Union flag powering down a long road surrounded by green fields with a couple of bumps and the slogan: "Let's Stay on the Road to a Stronger Economy."

A sub-heading boasts: "1.75 million more people in work. 760,000 more businesses. The deficit halved."

Under Mr Cameron, whose right-leaning party has ruled in coalition with the centre-left Liberal Democrats since 2010, Britain's £1.62 trillion (S$3.3 trillion) economy has emerged from its deepest downturn since World War II to enjoy the fastest growth rate of any major advanced economy.

While inflation has outpaced wages for much of Cameron's five-year term in office and many voters have struggled with rising food and heating bills, the falling cost of oil has now helped take inflation to a 12-year low.

Borrowing an attack strategy from US President Barack Obama, the Conservatives portray Labour, who were in power during the 2007/8 financial crisis, as the party that crashed "the car" and shouldn't be given the keys back.

Acknowledging the recovery is a task only half-done, the Conservatives say only they can "finish the job".

Labour, rated as less competent to manage the economy by most voters, say the Conservatives have borrowed more than planned and now aim to cut the budget deficit too fast and too deep for purely ideological reasons.

Labour says it would reduce the deficit in a fairer way while reversing tax cuts for high earners.

"Osborne and David Cameron say the election will be about economic competence," Mr Ed Balls, Labour's economics spokesman, wrote in the Guardian newspaper.

"But there is nothing competent about borrowing over £200 billion more than planned because of your failure to deliver a recovery that is felt by all working people and not just a few at the top."