A Government minister said today that she could see a few "green shoots" of economic recovery.
Business Minister Baroness Vadera said it was too early to say how they would develop and made clear that she was not predicting the end of the current downturn.
But her comment will be taken as an indication that she is hopeful for a turnaround after months of economic gloom.
In his Pre-Budget Report in November, Chancellor Alistair Darling forecast a return to growth in the second half of this year, though subsequent indicators have prompted speculation that he may be forced to revise this assessment in the spring Budget.
Lady Vadera was asked on ITV's Lunchtime News today when she believed the UK could expect to see "green shoots".
She replied: "It's a very uncertain world right now globally... I wouldn't want to be the one predicting it.
"I am seeing a few green shoots but it's a little bit too early to say exactly how they'd grow."
Shadow business secretary Alan Duncan said: "Shriti Vadera's comments go to show how out of touch and insensitive Gordon Brown's ministers are.
"The person who dismissed Railtrack shareholders as grannies in blouses has just advertised her own unsuitability for addressing the difficulties that the victims of Gordon Brown's recession are facing."
A Downing Street spokesman said the minister had been "underlining that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the economy at the moment".
Asked what were the "green shoots" she was referring to, he went on: "It's not for me to give a detailed view on that - that's probably for Berr (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Department) ministers.
"But these are uncertain economic times, there are pressures on jobs and businesses and families; at the same time you are seeing some businesses that are expanding their workforces."
Liberal Democrat treasury spokesman Vince Cable said that Lady Vadera's comments were "a work of fiction".
"Baroness Vadera is clearly living in a parallel universe if she thinks the economy is beginning to recover," he said.
"With thousands of jobs being lost every day and many families at risk of repossession, recovery is sadly a long way off.
"Ministers shouldn't talk down the economy, but Vadera's comments are a work of fiction."
* The former Conservative Chancellor Norman Lamont famously claimed in an earlier downturn to have detected "the green shoots of economic spring". His comment to the Tory conference in 1991 was widely regarded as premature and contributed to attacks on him.