LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who faces his first major electoral test this week, shrugged off critics from within his party on Monday and said his priority was guiding the economy through difficult times.
Trailing in the opinion polls, facing industrial unrest and simmering discontent within his Labour Party, Brown is under severe pressure ahead of local elections that will be read for signs of the possible outcome of a national vote due by 2010.
A survey on Monday showed Boris Johnson, candidate for the opposition Conservative party in the election for London mayor on May 1, had surged ahead of Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone, echoing national polls that show falling support for Labour.
Former Labour fundraiser Lord Levy was reported on Sunday as saying Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair believed Brown could not defeat Conservative leader David Cameron in a national election. Blair’s office has denied the claim.
It came after a string of public criticisms of Brown from within his party. He played down the in-fighting on Monday.
“The issues ahead of us are making sure that not only can Britain come through these very difficult economic times that we face, but also that we are better prepared for the future,” Brown told the BBC.
“I’m going to concentrate on the job ahead, on the priorities that matter for the British people and not on gossip or rumor, or statements made by one or two people.”
Labour risks a bruising in elections on Thursday for seats on 160 local authorities in England and Wales. The high-profile contest for London mayor will be a key battleground for the major parties, though personalities will play a big part.
A YouGov poll published on Monday for the Evening Standard showed maverick former journalist Johnson was 11 points ahead of left-wing Livingstone on 46 percent to his rival’s 35 percent.
The local elections come against a backdrop of slowing economic growth, declines in house prices and worsening consumer confidence following the fallout from the global credit crunch — all damaging Brown’s reputation for economic competency.
Labour controls just 50 councils in England, many around northern cities, while the Conservatives have more than 200.
Opinion polls published on Sunday showed Labour would lose office if a national election were held now.
In-fighting is further damaging the party’s reputation. Brown was forced last week to make concessions on tax reform to avert a rebellion by Labour politicians.
The concessions offered to people worst affected by the abolition this month of the lowest income tax band mean Brown will now avoid a potentially humiliating defeat in a parliamentary vote on the budget later on Monday.
Several senior ministers defended Brown over the weekend. Foreign Secretary David Miliband said disloyalty to Brown would be “fatal” and the party must stick by its core convictions.
Editing by Richard Meares