LONDON -- Prime Minister John Major launched Britain into a springtime political campaign yesterday by announcing that a general election would be held April 9.
It is expected to be a close race. There is wide expectation the election will produce a hung Parliament, with no party gaining a majority of seats. That could lead to a coalition between the party with the most seats and the smaller Liberal Democratic Party.
Mr. Major is an unelected prime minister in search of his own mandate. He succeeded Margaret Thatcher, who was voted out by Conservative Party leaders in November 1990 when her popularity had fallen to such a level that she was thought to be unelectable.
In the 16 months Mr. Major has led the Conservatives, his personal popularity has remained high, but his party's has not. The Conservatives, who won with Mrs. Thatcher in 1979, 1983 and 1987, stand just behind the Labor Party in most opinion polls, as they have since last summer.
All three parties tend to publicly discount the significance of the polls, but all are aware that in the 10 general elections since 1955, every prime minister who has called an election when his party has been behind in the polls in the previous three months has lost.
The whole country seemed to heave with relief at the announcement that an end date had been set to a political campaign that has actually been going on unofficially for almost a year.
Mr. Major said the Conservatives have "a stack of new ideas" to offer Britain. "I am confident we will win the election with a clear and working majority. I have no doubt about that," he said.
Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock was no less confident. "I am certain we can get an overall majority. . . . I feel very good about the election."
"At last!" said Paddy Ashdown, the popular chief of the Liberal Democrats. "This dithering and indecision that has gone on for a year has been bad for the country."
He also predicted that the campaign would be the "most negative, most dirty we have seen for many a long year."
Most other politicians and commentators agreed. The quarreling between Mr. Kinnock and Mr. Major on the floor of Parliament has been bitter of late. Smear stories aimed at this political leader or that have appeared with growing frequency.
Analysts also agree that the Conservatives will be fighting the election at a considerable disadvantage, owing to a persistent recession.
Unemployment is rising: Last month it stood at 9.2 percent, the highest level in four years. Mortgage foreclosures are at a record level: More than 200,000 people lost their homes last year. Business failures are spiraling upward: About 4,000 enterprises went into bankruptcy in 1991, a 56 percent increase over 1990.
The only good economic news is the low inflation level -- about 4 percent.
Mr. Major's announcement came a day after the unveiling of the national budget, which Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont said was designed to lift the country out of its slump. It was also apparently designed to win votes for the Conservatives among traditional Labor supporters. The Lamont budget offers tax cuts to low-paid workers and people living on meager pensions.
Mr. Major described his government's budget yesterday as "spectacular." Mr. Kinnock called it "a pancake."
The lowest-paid and poorest pensioners are not the only Labor voters the Conservatives usually try to win over. Of special importance to them are the thousands of semi-skilled workers who were attracted by Mrs. Thatcher's policies. Under the brunt of the recession, many have reportedly rekindled their sympathies for Labor.
For the traditional, middle-class or better-off Conservative voters, the budget offered an increase in the capital gains tax, and a rise to nearly $300,000 of the inheritance tax threshold.
To pay for it all, the government has put on a number of new taxes, such as 5 cents on a bottle of wine. However, beer, the drink of those in the poorer groups above, would only cost a penny more per pint.
That is not enough to cover the tax cuts, and to make it work, the government intends to double its level of borrowing over the next year, up to about $47 billion. That has caused much disquiet in London financial circles.
Labor, which has denounced the Lamont budget as an attempt to buy votes, has threatened to scrap it if it wins power. The budget would not come into effect until after the election, which will make it a factor in the election.
"The issue [in the election] will be tax," said a high official at the prime minister's office.
Another issue may be Mrs. Thatcher. The Labor Party, and even the Liberal Democrats, appear determined not to run against the popular Mr. Major and his short tenure so much as against the entire period of Conservative rule, most of it under Mrs. &r Thatcher, an experience that both Labor and the Liberal Democrats insist has put the country into one of the worst economic crises of the century.
Mr. Major yesterday made clear he would stand behind the full Conservative record. He said it was "absolutely remarkable and a tremendous tribute to what Margaret Thatcher achieved in her government."