LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Gordon Brown, boosted by improving poll ratings ahead of an election this year, said on Wednesday that the Conservatives were not fit to run the country.
The Tories have been expected to return to power after 13 years in the political wilderness but recent polls have shown their lead shrinking and raised the prospect of the first hung parliament since the 1970s.
Speaking during a parliamentary session of pre-electoral sniping, a combative Brown sought to exploit what Labour says are mixed Conservative messages on cutting a record deficit -- one of the central themes of an election due by June.
"This is a Conservative Party that is in complete muddle, (and) has no manifesto. They don't have the substance to be able to govern the country. They are a shambles," Brown said during heated exchanges with Conservative leader David Cameron.
The Conservatives have said they will seek to cut the deficit harder and faster than Labour but have recently toned down their rhetoric, wary of alienating voters with too much talk of an "age of austerity."
Brown argues that taking an axe to spending too early could choke off a weak recovery from a deep and enduring recession.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank said on Wednesday that Britain should avoid further tax increases and spending cuts in 2010/11 -- likely to provide further ammunition for Labour in the battle over the economy.
UNDER PRESSURE OVER IRAQ
Cameron, a slick former PR spokesman, tried to turn the tables on Brown by bringing up a public inquiry into Britain's role in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Brown was chancellor under Prime Minister Tony Blair at the time and some critics have suggested that he short-changed Britain's armed forces.
He set up the public inquiry last year to learn lessons from the conflict and will appear before it in the next few weeks. The inquiry risks reopening Labour divisions over the war, an issue that cost it votes in the 2005 general election.
A poll released on Tuesday said the majority of the public believed Brown should share the blame with Blair for the Iraq war.
Brown rejected charges that he underfunded the military.
"Not only did we prepare the army and navy and air forces with proper funding, but we also funded every urgent operational requirement that was made," Brown said.
He also defended the equipment provided to British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. More than 250 British soldiers have died in the Afghan conflict and the rising death toll threatens to sap support for Labour.
"It is not fair to our troops in Afghanistan to give the impression that they are not properly equipped for the job that they are doing," Brown said in response to a question from Nick Clegg, leader of Britain's smaller opposition Liberal Democrats.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)