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Britain's Blair sets date for new elections: Polls indicate Labor landslide

By Ray Moseley
Chicago Tribune, May 9, 2001, p. 2

LONDON -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday announced June 7 as the date for an election in which his government is tipped to win a second term by a landslide and keep the once dominant Conservatives in the wilderness for at least four more years.

Blair announced the long-anticipated date after he met Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and she agreed to dissolve Parliament on Friday, setting the stage for the campaign to begin officially on Monday.

By contrast with the United States, British campaigns are short--this one just four weeks--and inexpensive. Labor and the Conservatives spent just $79 million between them in 1997, and for this campaign have agreed to a spending limit of just over $22 million for each party.

Parties are allotted a limited number of political broadcasts during a campaign, and these are financed at public expense.

Blair, who turned 48 on Sunday, came to office with a parliamentary majority of 179 as the Conservatives suffered their worst defeat since 1832. Recent opinion polls suggest Blair could win an even larger majority this time, between 227 and 250 seats.

That margin is likely to shrink in the campaign, but the Conservatives face the almost impossible task of having nearly to double the 165 seats they won in 1997 just to secure a slim majority.

Pollsters say Labor is not nearly as popular as its lead suggests and owes its favorable margin primarily to continuing voter disillusionment with the Conservatives and especially their leader, William Hague, 40.

Hague, often caricatured by cartoonists as a boy in short pants, is disliked by many in his own deeply divided party. Another landslide for Labor would virtually ensure the end of his leadership.

Blair's own approval rating is in the low 20s--lower even than the rating for former Labor leader Neil Kinnock when he was thrashed at the polls by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Once hailed as the brightest star among European leaders, Blair is now seen by many as indecisive and lacking the sure political instincts that seemed to mark the beginning of his tenure.

Blair transformed Labor from a hard-left Socialist party to a center-left party more friendly to business and more committed to a strong national defense than in the past.

But his government has been dogged by a series of sleaze allegations, political fiascoes such as the $1 billion Millennium Dome project, and failure to overcome serious problems in the National Health Service and schools. Labor also has had the bad luck of having to deal with a costly foot and-mouth disease epidemic that forced Blair to abandon his May 3 target date for the election.

Many voters also have been alienated by a government with an almost obsessive attachment to political spin. Alastair Campbell, Blair's press secretary, is a subject of fierce controversy and is often portrayed by critics as the real power in the government, telling Blair what to do.

Yet none of this has dented the government's standing with voters, a government that no doubt has benefited from its management of a healthy economy. Officials say their biggest concern is that many of their supporters will take the election outcome for granted and not bother to vote.

Blair predicts tough fight

Campbell said the government would go into the campaign with "humility," admitting it hasn't done everything correctly in its first term.

Blair told his Cabinet on Monday: "Forget the polls and commentators. This is going to be a far tougher fight than people imagine."

The government has signaled that it plans big increases in health and education spending if it is re-elected.

Hague welcomed the coming election, saying the government was not so much seeking a second term as a second chance. But he has been weakened in the last two weeks by two parliamentary members of his party making racist comments. Hague wavered at first, then forced the two men to recant by threatening to strip them of party membership.

His party is expected to make a strong campaign pitch for tighter laws on how to deal with asylum seekers, one of the few issues on which it does relatively well in the polls.

The Conservatives also will demand tougher measures to deal with crime, and have been mounting an attack on what Hague calls Labor's "stealth taxes" that have increased the burden on the poor.

For most of the past four years, Hague has campaigned against British membership in the euro, the European single currency, which takes on a new reality Jan. 1 when the first euro notes and coins go into circulation.

Labor has mostly tried to duck the euro issue; opinion polls indicate overwhelming opposition to the currency. But Blair recently promised to hold a referendum on euro membership within two years of beginning a second term.

Foreign Secretary Robin Cook promised Tuesday that Labor would ensure Britain would remain "in the mainstream of Europe, a partner committed to making a success of Europe."

Cook said the Conservatives are committed "to reducing Britain to the sidelines of Europe."

Implications for U.S. relations

If Blair is re-elected, he may enjoy a less cozy relationship with the administration of President Bush than he did with that of Bill Clinton.

Blair has been criticized in conservative circles in the U.S. for his equivocations about the president's missile defense shield plan. Hague has given it his full support.