UK's Brown Says Credit-Crunch Priority for 2008

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown got a boost from an opinion poll on Sunday and said his priority for 2008 would be steering Britain's economy through the fallout from the global credit crunch.

The Sunday Times poll showed Brown's Labour Party lagging the opposition Conservatives by five points -- a sharp improvement from a 13-point deficit two weeks ago, perhaps reflecting a let-up after weeks of bad news for the government.

Under Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system, that would give the parties about the same number of seats in parliament, leaving the next election wide open, the paper said.

The poll will come as a relief to Brown, whose popularity has slumped in the last few months because of the credit crisis, government blunders over lost personal data and a storm over secret donations to the Labour Party.

However, the YouGov poll of 1,566 people found that 58 percent of people thought Brown was doing a bad job.

Brown, who took over from Tony Blair in June, does not have to call an election until 2010.

In a sign Labour's poll deficit is worrying ministers, The Sunday Times quoted Justice Secretary Jack Straw as acknowledging that Conservative leader David Cameron's message was "resonating" with the public and cautioning that governments had to adapt to stay in power.

Cameron has driven his party towards the centre in an effort to regain power after a decade in opposition.

Brown said his main focus in 2008 would be wrestling with the global credit crisis that led to Britain's first bank run in more than a century at mortgage lender Northern Rock.

"The global credit problem that started in America is now the most immediate challenge for every economy and addressing it the most immediate priority," Brown said in a New Year's message setting out his goals for next year.

Financial Turbulence

"Our strong economy is the foundation. And with unbending determination, in 2008, we will steer a course of stability through global financial turbulence," he said.

Northern Rock has had to borrow at least 25 billion pounds ($50 billion) from the Bank of England.

Brown and finance minister Alistair Darling have come under fire for their handling of the crisis but Brown expressed confidence the economy would not be pushed off course, vowing to keep interest rates low by keeping inflation low.

The economy has enjoyed solid growth since Labour came to power in 1997, but weakening house prices and sliding consumer morale are raising fears of a slowdown in 2008.

Brown has invited German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy to London for a meeting on financial market stability, expected in the first half of January.

Brown, who has been under pressure to set out his vision, pledged that 2008 would be a year of "real and serious changes."

He gave a strong hint that his government would give the go-ahead next month to a controversial new generation of nuclear power stations by pledging to "take the difficult decisions on energy security," including on nuclear power.

In his New Year message, Cameron said the Conservatives would show in 2008 that they were "a clear and credible alternative to this hopeless and incompetent Labour government."