Official: Britain to hold national election May 6

April 5, 2010 2:34:36 PM PDT
Britain's first national election in five years will take place on May 6, Prime Minister Gordon Brown planned to announce Tuesday, launching a monthlong campaign that could end in his ouster and the return of the opposition Conservative Party to power for the first time in 13 years.

After months of anticipation over the election date, Brown will finally play his hand, traveling to Buckingham Palace to ask Queen Elizabeth II for permission to dissolve Parliament and call the first national vote since 2005.

A Labour Party official, who requested anonymity to discuss the announcement in advance, confirmed Brown would announce a May 6 poll on Tuesday, after a morning meeting of his Cabinet and an audience with the queen.

For Brown, appreciated by some but widely unloved, election day could end a three-year tenure as prime minister marked by the near-collapse of the British economy and beset by division within his party.

Defeat would bring to a close a British political era begun with Tony Blair's landslide 1997 election victory, which returned the Labour Party to office and brought an unprecedented three successive electoral triumphs for the center-left organization. Britain's Conservatives -- the party of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill -- hope to win a national election for the first time since 1992.

Brown -- who has never before contested a national election as party leader -- planned to almost immediately hit the campaign trail, seeking to woo voters stung by the impact of the financial crisis, weary at the war in Afghanistan and furious at a scandal over lawmakers' inflated and fraudulent expense claims.

The 59-year old, who succeeded Blair in 2007, said he'll stake his chances on his record in guiding Britain through the global economic meltdown -- warning that his rivals' plans for immediate spending cuts to ease crippling national debt threaten to harm, not speed, the country's recovery.

"I have not spent the last two years taking this economy through the worst financial recession to sit back and allow a Conservative Party which has no idea about how to run the economy to put it all at risk," Brown told the Tuesday edition of Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper in an interview to announce his plans -- excerpts of which were available in advance.

Brown's Labour Party is as much as 10 points behind the Conservatives and their articulate but untested leader, David Cameron, in some opinion polls. But an unusual electoral map means the outcome of the election is still uncertain.

An ICM poll published late Sunday by The Guardian newspaper showed Labour closing in on its main rival -- climbing four points to 33 percent with the opposition Tories down one point with 37 percent. Other polls, however, showed larger Tory leads.

Britain's recession-wracked economy and enormous debt will dominate the election campaign. Both Labour and the Conservatives say they will trim spending and slash the country's 167 billion pound ($250 billion) deficit -- but they differ on how deep, and how soon, to make cuts.

Cameron said his task was to convince ordinary Britons he can lead an economic revival, and offer an upbeat message about the country's future.

"They're good, decent people -- they're the people of Britain and they just want a reason to believe that anything is still possible in our country. This election is about giving them that reason, giving them that hope. That's the Conservatives mission -- that's my mission -- for the next 30 days and I can't wait to get started," Cameron said in a statement.

The 43-year-old Cameron has sought to replace his party's fusty, right-wing image with a more modern brand of "compassionate Conservatism," and drawn more women and members of ethnic minorities to a party long dominated by affluent white men like himself.

However, his party retains a fiscally conservative policy slate -- pledging to reverse Labour's planned hike to national insurance, a payroll tax paid by employees and employers, and implement about 6 billion pounds in spending cuts this year. Labour says major cuts should be deferred until next year to give the economy more time to recover.

Cameron's party also plans to cut the number of lawmakers, offer tax breaks to married couples and overhaul Britain's education system. Brown promises a public referendum on changing Britain's voting system, improved cancer treatment and a new high speed national rail network.

The major parties agree on key international issues -- both would keep British troops in Afghanistan and seek to preserve the so-called "special relationship" with the U.S.

Both also concede that Britain's next government must make sharp cuts to services, likely to bring confrontation with labor unions.

Disillusionment at mainstream politics following an expense claims scandal could benefit small and fringe parties in the election, including the Greens and the racist British National Party -- neither of whom currently hold a House of Commons seat.

Brown's Labour Party said the leader planned to visit people in their homes and workplace canteens in an attempt to break down voter cynicism -- following advice from strategists who worked with U.S. President Barack Obama.

But the public expect a more U.S.-style, personality-centered campaign -- including the first-ever televised debates between the leaders of Labour, the Conservatives and the third-placed Liberal Democrats.

With his bicycle riding, informal "call me Dave" manner and young family -- his wife Samantha is expecting their fourth child in September -- Cameron is well placed to benefit from a focus on personality. Some see a parallel with Labour's former savior Blair, whose confident but easy style helped sweep his party to power in 1997.

Blair disagrees -- and attacked Cameron last week in his first domestic political speech since leaving office.

Because of the quirks of Britain's electoral system, the Conservatives will need a large swing to ensure a majority of House of Commons seats and oust Brown.

The Conservatives lost the 2005 election despite taking a bigger share of the popular vote than Labour.

Many recent opinion polls suggest the election could result in a hung Parliament -- in which no party has an absolute majority -- for the first time since 1974. That results could spell a second national election later this year.