GORDON Brown last night urged voters not to put Britain's "fragile" economic recovery at risk by entrusting control to his "novice" rivals.
Speaking the day after the second election debate in which the Labour leader is generally felt to have come in behind Tory Leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat chief Nick Clegg, he pointed to the latest official figures which showed the economy continued to grow in the first three months of the year.
The prime minister claimed 1.7 million more jobs would have been lost in the recession if the Tories had been in power.
The Conservatives, however, said that it was a "jobless recovery", which would see unemployment rise if Labour's planned increase in national insurance contributions went ahead. After the second televised leaders' debate failed to produce a decisive winner, the two main parties returned to the familiar battleground of the economy which dominated the first week of campaigning.
Preliminary figures from the Office for National Statistics showed the economy grew by an estimated 0.2pc in the first quarter of 2010 -- not as strongly as had been expected, but still avoiding a "double dip" recession.
Mr Brown said it was the wrong time to take chances as he sought to portray himself as the man with the experience to take right decisions in contrast to Tory leader David Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne. "Our hard-earned recovery is too fragile to let these novices play with it now," he said in a campaign speech to students in Coventry. "Never were experience and judgment more called for than now."
He said that it was the Tories' lack of economic credibility, as much as Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's "TV and PR skills", that had put paid to the idea that the election was "an inevitable Tory procession to Downing Street".
Earlier, at a news conference in London, Mr Brown vowed to "fight as though my life depended upon it" to ensure a Labour victory, while Business Secretary Lord Mandelson mocked Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne as "just a couple of kids in school shorts".
Mr Osborne, however, said that the "disappointing" growth figures showed that Britain still had deep economic problems.
"After the longest recession, we now have a jobless recovery from a weak government," he said. "What Britain doesn't need now is a jobs' tax that would kill the recovery or a hung parliament that would lead to economic paralysis."
Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable said that the recovery was "barely visible" and could still fall away.
"There is a real danger of the UK going into a double-dip recession," he said.
In the wake of leaders' debate, the two main parties also traded blows over Labour campaign literature which said the Tories planned to cut benefits for elderly -- claims denounced as "lies" by Mr Cameron.