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Major Sets Vote Likely to End Tenure

Britain: Prime minister schedules May 1 election. Labor's Tony Blair is widely expected to defeat him.

March 18, 1997|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — The long-anticipated call to arms finally came on a brilliant spring morning. Wearing a jaunty smile and a pink shirt before the prime minister's front door at 10 Downing St. on Monday, John Major invited Britain to a national election May 1 that is expected to write his political epitaph.

After his ritual consultation with Queen Elizabeth II, Major's announcement of the election date ended months of political skirmishing, conjecture and maneuvering. Now, after 18 years of rule by his Conservative Party, Major is running for his political life against a reborn Labor Party led by young centrist Tony Blair.

If there are no more surprises in the campaign than there were surrounding the election announcement, however, Blair will become Britain's prime minister by mid-May.

With polls showing a record Labor lead, the campaign is expected to be the most American-style Britain has ever seen: dirty, personality-focused and marked on both sides by negative advertising. Personal-appearance campaigning is growing in Britain and is widely expected to lead to the nation's first televised candidate debate.

By Monday afternoon, Major had already mounted his soapbox in Bedfordshire, northwest of London, the constituency where the Conservative campaign momentum turned the tide of a Labor lead in the 1992 elections.

"The people will decide over the next few weeks whether they want to continue with some of the best economic news that we have had for generations or whether it will be a return to the politics of socialism that brought this country to its knees in the '70s," Major said against a background of noisy pro-Labor demonstrators.

Blair, who has never held government office, has pulled a traditionally left-wing, blue-collar party to the political center in recasting Labor's look, its policies--and its appeal to middle-class Britain.

Dubbing himself "the eternal warrior against complacency," Blair welcomed Monday's election call, which came while he was visiting a London school. The election was good news, he said, because over the past year "very little has been happening in government" while Conservatives tried to engineer their fifth consecutive term in office.

"I want a new government . . . with different values and different priorities to lead a national renewal," Blair said. He attributed Labor's growing popularity to the party's "massive" internal transformation and "the fact that most people look at the Conservatives and think they are rather incompetent, rather tired and offering rather poor leadership."

More than half of voters queried in a recent poll said Labor was ahead because it is time for a change. The Conservatives, in power since the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, have a natural majority in Britain.

Blair must convince voters that Labor has left behind its long-contentious socialist principles and is a safe, responsible, middle-of-the-road alternative source of government. Under his leadership, Labor is as committed to free-market economics as the Conservatives, having officially abandoned support for the nationalization of public services and industries.

The six-week election campaign, nearly twice as long as usual, will offer Major and his party allies every opportunity to attack Blair's credibility and try to short-circuit what would be the first Labor victory since 1974.

Judged by polls, however, Labor's popularity is unprecedented. The party leads the Conservatives 52% to 27%, according to this week's Sunday Times poll. The Labor lead grew from 18% to 25% between February and March despite a skein of good news from a Conservative government celebrating Europe's strongest economy.

The third party Liberal Democrats, under Paddy Ashdown, favored by a steady 13% in the opinion polls, opened their campaign Monday with protests against plans for up to three head-to-head TV debates between Major and Blair. Ashdown wants to be included under British equal-access laws.

Ashdown says the Conservatives and Labor have become Tweedledum and Tweedledee, with little to choose between their promise-anything campaign plans.

*

In the British tradition, Parliament will be formally dissolved early next month, and campaigning will begin in earnest after Easter. As a matter of fact, though, both parties began careful and structured electioneering more than a year ago for a poll that Major could not legally delay beyond May.

Under the prime ministerial form of government, Major, who was elected in 1992, got a five-year mandate with the option of calling elections at his pleasure any time before five years elapsed.

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