LONDON — Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, trying to become the first British prime minister in more than a century to win a third consecutive term, announced Monday that a general election will be held June 11.
Opinion polls give Thatcher's Conservative Party a comfortable lead over the Labor Party, its principal opposition, and she is regarded as more than likely to succeed.
"I hope to go on and on," Thatcher, 61, told a television interviewer after the election announcement. "I believe passionately in our policies, and I believe they are right for Britain."
Her three-sentence announcement, issued to reporters waiting outside the prime minister's residence on Downing Street, ended months of speculation about the timing of the election.
"I thought it was best to end the uncertainty so we could all plan for the future," Thatcher said. "I want to plan on a longer basis."
Election a Year Early
The election comes almost exactly a year before the end of her present five-year term. She decided on an early election after meeting Sunday with her political advisers and reviewing her party's strength after last week's convincing showing in local elections.
She informed her Cabinet of the decision Monday morning and then, just after midday, traveled the short distance across St. James's Park to Buckingham Palace to inform Queen Elizabeth II. She then issued the public statement.
Campaigning will begin in earnest after Parliament is officially dissolved next Monday.
The campaign, extremely short by American standards, is nevertheless expected to be one of the bitterest ever. Thatcher, who once said her aim was the destruction of the socialism expounded by her Labor opponents, said Monday, "The issue is the whole way of life."
She indicated that if she wins, she will probably try for a fourth term. "This is only the third term we're asking for," she said, noting that her party's policies were meant to guide Britain "up to the end of the century."
The longest-serving British prime minister, Lord Liverpool, ruled the country for 15 years in the early 19th Century.
Thatcher, in eight years as the head of government, has brought about more change in British life than any other prime minister in modern times.
She has tamed the once-powerful trade unions, broadened private ownership of housing and sold off to small shareholders large segments of profitable, state-owned industry. She has reduced taxes and public spending, moves that have improved industrial efficiency and expanded economic growth.
But her opponents see her as an unbending tyrant whose policies have split the nation into haves and have-nots, with the less fortunate suffering from high unemployment, urban decay and declining social services.
"The choice is stark," said Neil Kinnock, the 45-year-old Welshman who will fight his first campaign as Labor leader. "It's whether we have a united kingdom or a divided kingdom. This election is about saving our country from industrial decline, social division and the destruction of community services."
Labor is expected to present its election platform next week, but party officials have already made it clear that they will focus on the key social issues of unemployment, public health and education, areas in which they believe Thatcher governments have bungled.
Unemployment stands at more than 3 million, although the level has declined in recent months. The state-run school system has been disrupted by teacher strikes, and the quality of the National Health Service has visibly declined. Increasingly, people who can afford alternatives have chosen private schools and private health care.
Foreign Policy Issues
Major foreign policy questions can also be expected to be raised in the campaign. Thatcher is President Reagan's closest ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and an ardent advocate of the alliance's nuclear umbrella. She has developed an unusual rapport with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and is regarded as an important link between Moscow and the West.
By contrast, Kinnock has no experience in foreign affairs, has never served as a government minister and has pledged to scrap Britain's modest nuclear deterrent and demand the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear forces.
Although the Conservatives enjoy a comfortable lead as the campaign begins, political analysts and pollsters have raised questions about the stability of Thatcher's support. They point to the unusually large number of undecided voters and the fact that the large Conservative lead has emerged only in recent months. They say these are volatile factors that provide a far greater element of doubt than in 1983, when the Conservatives won a landslide victory.