Britain’s economic recovery slowed far more sharply than expected in the first quarter, dealing a major blow to the government’s track record on the economy with a little more than a week to go until the general election.
The prime minister David Cameron said the recovery could not be taken for granted after the latest official figures showed that the economy grew by just 0.3% between January and March, half the rate of the previous quarter. Economists were expecting growth of 0.5%.
It was the slowest rate of growth since the end of 2012, when there were fears Britain would tip back into recession.
Speaking in Enfield, north London, David Cameron played down the dramatic slowdown in growth and used the figures to warn that a Labour government would put the economic recovery at risk.
He said: “Our economy is growing; growing at a rate that many other European countries frankly would give their eye teeth for.
“These are one quarter’s figures. But they remind us, a timely reminder, that you cannot take recovery for granted. You take your eye off the ball on reducing the deficit, that would be bad for growth; you take your eye off the ball in being pro-business, that would damage growth.”
However, the surprisingly weak growth figure comes at an awkward time for the Conservatives, who have made the economy a major battleground in the run-up to the election.
They argue that sustainable growth is dependent on a Tory victory on 7 May, while a Labour victory would plunge the UK into economic “chaos”.
Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor, seized on the weak data from the Office for National Statistics, saying it showed working families were still suffering at the hands of the Conservatives.
“While the Tories have spent months patting themselves on the back, these figures show they have not fixed the economy for working families.
“Tory economic policy may be helping a few at the top but for most people bills have gone up faster than wages.
“Working families can’t afford another five years of the Tories. Labour’s better plan will put working people first, make our economy stronger and ensure the recovery reaches everyone in every part of the country.”
The annual rate of growth also slowed sharply, to 2.4% in the first quarter from 3% in the fourth quarter of 2014.