Andrew Grice: Weak performance plays into Brown's hands at election

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The Independent Online

When Downing Street issued its list of ministerial engagements and news events for Westminster journalists yesterday, there was no mention of the long-awaited official figures showing that the economy had finally returned to growth.

It was a remarkably low-key approach on a day that had long been circled in ministers' diaries. In the event, growth of 0.1 per cent in the final three months of 2009 gave them little to trumpet. Some senior Labour figures fear that the next set of quarterly figures on 23 April could show a return to negative growth – which would be a devastating setback in the middle of the campaign before the expected general election on 6 May. A Treasury source admitted: "You can't be sure that recovery will go on a steady glide path."

It was the April diary date that prompted speculation Gordon Brown would opt for a 25 March election to head off the possibility of "double dip" headlines during the campaign. But there has been no significant Labour recovery in the opinion polls, and opting for March after yesterday's GDP figures would provoke claims that Mr Brown feared bad news on 23 April.

However, there were two silver linings for Labour yesterday. A stronger return to growth would have made it harder for Mr Brown to warn voters not to "take a risk with the inexperienced Tories" at the election.

Some Labour strategists argue that, while Mr Brown may not be loved, he still retains a grudging respect from the general public. His appeal might be enhanced if Britain is not out of choppy waters.

Secondly, such a fragile recovery makes it harder for David Cameron to argue for immediate cuts in public spending this year – a course opposed by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and many economists. Mr Cameron went hard on this on Monday, perhaps anticipating the 0.4 per cent growth predicted by many City analysts. With hindsight this looks a bit rash, and the wafer-thin growth figure adds some weight to Labour's argument that the outlook is still very uncertain.

Mr Brown deserves credit for the way he steered the ship through an unprecedented storm. His banks rescue, initially rejected by the US, was then copied by it. "Active government" has limited unemployment rises. But his handicap is his fateful claim to have abolished "boom and bust". And perhaps his biggest problem is that, while most politicians don't like saying sorry, most voters don't like saying thank you.