Blair goes for a second term

Britain: When things went wrong for government, the opposition party was even worse.

May 10, 2001

ONCE AGAIN, Britain will demonstrate how to hold an election quickly, on the issues, with spending caps, subsidized television, high turnout and a decisive outcome even with a minority winner.

No chads in the United Kingdom. The voter marks a paper ballot for a member of the House of Commons. The ballots are counted in each district after the polls close. That result is official. The leader of the party winning a majority of seats becomes prime minister. It is low-tech and efficient.

So Prime Minister Tony Blair -- Clinton Lite to his detractors -- told the country on May 8 there would be an election June 7. There is a catch. The campaign was already going full blast. Spending caps did not begin until the announcement.

Foot-and-mouth disease delayed the election by a month. The Northern Ireland business is going poorly. Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Greater London proves messy. Mr. Blair is thought to want to exchange the British pound for the European Union's euro, which is unpopular. But the economy is in its ninth year of growth, inflation is down and unemployment is not bad by historic standards.

Most important, the Conservative Party does not have its act together. The devastating loss in 1997 left it more a regional than national party. Under the vigorous young leadership of William Hague, it has foot-in-mouth disease, unable to decide whether it means to be racist and xenophobic.

Labor's mandate in 1997 was on 43.2 percent of the vote, with the Conservatives getting only 30.7 percent. Third-party Liberal Democrats and regional parties of the Celtic fringe -- Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland -- divided the rest. Something like that appears likely to happen again.

The Tories did not rebuild in the past four years as they should and are not ready to govern. They go through the motions but appear likely to concede a second term to Labor. Next time, Britain may need better from them.

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