British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has defended the UK’s stimulus package while announcing a pre-election budget for March 24th, fuelling speculation a general election will be held.

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Brown added that Britain’s economic recovery “remains very fragile” and warned of “bumps in the road” ahead.

But in a personal appeal to voters, he said he would “not let them down” in steering the economy to safety, contrasting himself with Conservative leader David Cameron, whose party threatens to oust Labour at the poll.

The budget will be held in two weeks’ time, Brown said, while the Treasury confirmed the date would be March 24.

Several ministers have already suggested the general election – expected to be dominated by debate on the economy – will be held on May 6.

Experts expect election

Experts said it was now all but certain this date would be confirmed by Brown in the days after the budget, leading into a campaign lasting five weeks or a month.

“I would be astonished if it’s anything other than May 6,” Peter Kellner, president of pollsters YouGov, told AFP. “It would be completely batty to hold it on any other date.”

During a keynote speech in London, Brown told an audience of businessmen that the economy was “at a turning point and a crossroads”.

“There will be bumps in the road. And I believe the only way to overcome them is by displaying the same strength and resolve as we did during the crisis. And I will not let you down,” he said.

Conservatives lead cut

Cameron’s Conservatives had long held a double-digit lead in opinion polls but Labour has clawed back ground since data in January showed Britain emerged from recession, promising a close fight in the election.

The Conservatives are four points ahead of Brown’s Labour according to the Sun newspaper’s latest daily opinion poll Wednesday. Rupert Murdoch’s paper has publicy backed the Conservative opposition.

Cameron’s party has 36 percent support, down three, with Labour on 32 percent, down two, and the centre-left Liberal Democrats on 20 percent, up four percent. YouGov questioned 1,524 people for the poll on March 8 and 9.

Experts say they need a bigger lead than that to secure an overall majority in the House of Commons, raising the prospect of a rare hung parliament in Britain for the first time since 1974.

Brown attacks Cameron over inexperience

Brown also tried to contrast himself with the 43-year-old Cameron, who has never held ministerial office and whom Brown accuses of lacking experience, saying that questions of “policy” and “character” were closely linked.

“I believe that character is not about telling people what they want to hear but about telling them what they need to know,” he said.

“It is about having the courage to set out your mission and the courage to take the tough decisions and stick to them without being blown off-course, even when the going is difficult.”

Britain emerged from recession in the fourth quarter of last year with growth of 0.3 percent.

The expansion in October to December 2009 followed a deep recession that lasted six quarters – the country’s longest since records began.

The country also has a budget deficit forecast to be 178 billion pounds (AU$291.5bn) for the current fiscal year.

As part of measures to save three billion pounds (AU$4.9bn) over three years, Brown announced Wednesday a pay freeze for thousands of civil servants.

But Jonathan Baume of the FDA senior public sector workers said: “It is simply untenable for the government to continue freezing the pay of senior civil servants as a political device year after year.”