Decisions by the new Government in the first weeks after the election could be critical for Britain's economic future and make or break Britain's reputation as a location of choice for business.

The warning came yesterday from Sir Digby Jones, director general of the CBI, speaking at a panel session at the annual convention of the Institute of Directors.

"We are at five to midnight, whether we remain the investment location of choice in Europe," Sir Digby said.

The next Government will have to make big, urgent decisions on transport and skills, Sir Digby added

"It must also ensure our flexible labour market, the most important factor in determining where globally mobile companies locate, are not eroded. We have the most successful economy in the western world. He urged politicians "Don't do anything with regulation or tax to threaten it."

David Frost, Sir Digby's opposite number at the British Chambers of Commerce, made a plea for manufacturing in the face of unrelenting global competition.

It was in danger of being crowded out by the creation of public sector jobs.

"The only thing propping up northern towns is public sector investment," Mr Frost added.

Sir Digby derided the Government for resorting to "the old British Leyland School of management" in running the public sector.

"The ask the public sector to work to 65. The TUC threatens a strike and the Government says 'Forget it'."

After the TV interviewer Peter Sissons, the panel chairman, hurriedly pointed out that the TUC has not called a strike for 80 years, Brendan Barber, the TUC's secretary general, remarked: "The idea that there is no change taking place in our public services is a parody."

He also disputed suggestions that public sector jobs are unproductive. A strong consensus emerged, though, over training.

Mr Barber said the TUC recognised it has a role in "getting involved in learning again" by encouraging individuals to take part in training schemes they would reject if offered by an employer or the Government.