LONDON, April 5 -- Prime Minister Tony Blair called a national election for May 5, revealing the worst-kept secret in British politics and starting what could be the first closely fought campaign in more than a decade.
Blair's Labor Party won landslide victories in 1997 and 2001 and is widely expected to win again. But opinion polls published in newspapers Tuesday suggested the electorate was distrustful of Blair and angry over his decision to go to war in Iraq.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has been criticized over the war in Iraq.
(Stephen Hird -- Reuters)
The prime minister kicked off the campaign by trying to focus attention on his economic achievements and investment in public services, rather than his controversial foreign policy and alliance with President Bush.
"It's a big choice, and there's a lot at stake," he told reporters outside his Downing Street office. "The British people are the boss, and they are the ones who will make" the choice.
During eight years in power, Blair has enjoyed a triple-digit majority in the House of Commons. If he wins a third term, he would be the first Labor premier to do so and equal the record of Margaret Thatcher of the Conservative Party.
But the huge leads Blair had in opinion polls before the two previous elections are absent this year. Surveys published by the Times, the Guardian and the Independent newspapers showed the Labor Party between 2 and 6 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives, but a poll by Market & Opinion Research International (MORI) for the Financial Times found that among those who said they were "certain to vote," the Conservatives had a five-point lead.
According to Robert Worcester, the chairman of MORI, this did not mean that Conservatives would claim victory; the electoral system in Britain favors Labor, whose support is spread more evenly across the country. But it did pose the possibility of a hung Parliament or a greatly reduced Labor majority.
"That would mean losing a great many 'Blairites' in the House of Commons," Worcester said, "and leave him with lawmakers in his own party who are not sympathetic with his aims and who would make his life difficult at best, impossible at worst."
Labor has 410 lawmakers in Commons, which gives Blair a 161-seat majority in the 659-seat body. Under Britain's parliamentary system, the leader of the party with the most seats automatically becomes prime minister.
Michael Howard, the conservative leader, urged voters not to reward Blair for "eight years of broken promises." In the weeks before Tuesday's announcement, Howard has put Labor on the defensive over such issues as immigration and health care. But because his party also supported the war, he has been unable to capitalize on anger over Iraq.
The Liberal Democrats, the only major party to oppose the war, have focused on pledges to increase numbers of police and reform local tax laws.
Blair had planned to announce the election Monday but deferred for 24 hours out of respect for the death of Pope John Paul II. In line with tradition, he set the process in motion by formally asking Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve Parliament.