Brown takes the blame for election row

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Monday said he took ”full responsibility” for the decision not to call an early election, but rejected claims he had run scared from a possible defeat.

Brown told an often rowdy news conference that he had considered holding an election — and believed his governing Labour Party would have won — but instead opted to wait and take a long-term approach before going to the polls.

Opposition parties have accused Brown of indecision and weakness after his announcement on Saturday, saying he had allowed his advisers to stoke up election fervour, only to pull out when one poll suggested he could have lost.

Conservative Party leader David Cameron, which reversed its deficit to Labour after its annual conference last week, said Brown had treated voters ”like fools” by trying to claim he had not acted because of the sudden slump.

Brown told reporters he had looked at the polls, but said they were not a factor. And he added that he would have made the same decision had Sunday’s ICM/News of the World survey pointed instead towards a comfortable majority.

He said he had returned to his ”first instinct” of demonstrating to the electorate his ”vision” for the future of the country in areas such as health, education and housing, and wanted the chance to deliver on it.

Refusing to blame his advisers, he said: ”I take full responsibility for everything that has happened. I will not put blame on anybody else. Anything that happens in Downing Street is the direct responsibility of me and I will always take that full responsibility myself.”

Turbulent week

Brown’s back-foot defence came at the start of a potentially turbulent week in which he faces further criticism of manipulating an announcement on British troop withdrawals from Iraq and the prospect of a gloomy economic outlook.

The prime minister said in Baghdad last week there would be 1 000 fewer soldiers in Iraq by the year end, even though 500 had previously been announced and 250 of those had already returned home.

He had also promised that Parliament would be the first to know, leading to accusations that he had manipulated the announcement for party political gain in the event an election was called.

Brown was to address Parliament on future deployments later on Monday in what he promised would be a ”far more comprehensive” statement, after claims in the Guardian that he would announce a further cut of 1 500 troops by May next year.

He refused to comment on figures or whether the statement could include a further 500 asylum places for endangered Iraqi citizens, many of whom had worked as interpreters for the British military.

Reaction to Brown’s weekend announcement effectively ended his honeymoon ”bounce” with the electorate that had been sustained by his response to crises including failed car bombings, floods and foot-and-mouth disease.

Ratings slump

Labour’s ratings slump came after the Tories announced headline-grabbing tax-reform plans and Cameron made a set-piece speech without notes that was well-received.

Brown attacked the Tory proposals on Monday, saying they would leave a ”black hole” in government finances that would have be met by cuts in public services or tax hikes elsewhere.

Cameron is likely to return to the election issue on Wednesday when the pair meet for the first time in the new parliamentary term at the weekly prime minister’s questions.

Finance Minister Alistair Darling’s statement to Parliament on Tuesday on future government spending plans and the pre-budget report could also add to Brown’s woes, amid predictions of an economic downturn.

There are already rumblings of dissent from the unions over below-inflation public-sector wage increases, while Royal Mail workers went on strike for the second time Monday over pay and conditions. — Sapa-AFP

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