Blair sets June 7 for elections in Britain

Riding high in polls, prime minister calls for a `fresh mandate'

May 09, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Making a call on a sovereign, a speech in a school and a plea to his people yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair set a June 7 general election that is expected to sweep his Labor Party to a historic second consecutive full term in power.

Seeking a "fresh mandate for fresh and radical change," Blair expertly meshed age-old tradition and modern media frills to extract as much drama as possible from a political act that combines timing and cunning.

Unlike U.S. presidents, British prime ministers can set election dates within their allotted five-year terms.

After bypassing an expected May date and calling off local elections because of Britain's continuing battle with foot-and-mouth disease, Blair made his move four years and one week into his first term.

Despite a winter of floods, rail woes and farming disasters, Blair and Labor remain comfortably ahead in the polls and in control of the agenda against a weak opposition. More important, the British economy is booming, with both unemployment and interest rates low.

On an unusually warm and sunny day, Blair was driven the few blocks from his No. 10 Downing St. office to Buckingham Palace, where he met with Queen Elizabeth II to ask for the dissolution of Parliament. That formal request, which gains a formal acceptance except in the rarest of circumstances, sets in motion the election machinery.

Parliament will be officially dissolved Monday as the frenetic monthlong campaign moves into a higher gear of speech-making and barnstorming on "battle buses."

Break with tradition

Blair, 48, broke with the tradition of announcing the election date while at Downing Street, choosing to begin his campaign from the stage of an inner-city London school.

Dressed in shirt sleeves and wearing a red tie, Blair made his case for a second term and laid out what will probably be the main themes of the campaign: retaining a strong economy, boosting public services and nurturing Britain's relationship with its European neighbors - including whether to join the single currency, the euro.

"Four years has given us the chance to build foundations, but the work must go on," Blair said.

Despite a lead in recent polls of up to 20 percentage points, Blair signaled a no-holds-barred campaign. Some in his camp fear that turnout could drop below 70 percent, which by British standards would be unusually low and might give the opposition Conservative Party a chance for an upset.

"Every vote in this election is precious," Blair said. "No one's support should ever be assumed. That is the strength of our democracy."

At stake in the election are the 659 seats in the House of Commons. During the 1997 landslide that brought Labor back to power, Blair's party gained a 179-seat majority. Some predict that Labor's lead could top 200 seats. Even if the majority narrows, Labor is expected to gain a second consecutive full term at the polls, a feat that eluded the party throughout the 20th century.

What makes the prospect of a left-of-center Labor victory so striking is that the United States is run by a right-of-center Republican administration. The countries are often politically in tune.

Untested opposition

Britain's opposition parties suffer from being untested, unpopular and led by personalities not well known to the public.

The Conservatives, who ruled Britain for 18 years under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, are led by William Hague, 40. Bidding to become the country's youngest prime minister since William Pitt in 1783, Hague made his first political splash as a teen-ager addressing a Conservative Party conference. With close-cropped hair and a droning north English accent, Hague is hardly inspiring on television, but he is a fierce debater who has often outwitted Blair during prime minister's question time in Parliament.

Hague has had the misfortune of leading a party seriously divided over Britain's role in Europe. He will push for tax cuts and efficiency in public services but will also try to make the campaign a referendum on what it means to be British, an emotional issue to some who want to keep the country at a distance from its Continental neighbors. He also will claim that the election will offer voters a chance to show that they want to retain the British pound.

"If people want in this election a party that will hit crime hard, keep your taxes down, improve local schools and keep the pound, that is what they will get from the Conservative Party," Hague told supporters yesterday during a "Save the Pound" rally in Watford.

Some speculate that if the Tories go down in flames, Hague will be ousted as party leader, perhaps as early as the day after the election.

Charles Kennedy, 41, leads the Liberal Democrats, who were once tagged with the slogan "We're not Labor, we're not Conservative, and we're not going to win."

The party will run on a platform of raising taxes to improve services and reforming the election system by scrapping winner-take-all contests and apportioning seats by voting percentages.

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