LONDON — Prime Minister John Major yesterday chose April 9 for what promises to be one of the closest, most bitterly fought general elections in Britain this century.
His move came the day after Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont unveiled an annual budget offering incentives to small businesses and tax cuts to low-paid workers but committing the Conservative government to borrowing 28 billion pounds ($47.6 billion) next year to pay for increased public expenditure if it is reelected.
Full-scale electioneering is expected to begin on Monday. The battle will be for 650 places in the House of Commons, where the Tories currently enjoy a majority of more than 100 seats.
Labour opposition leader Neil Kinnock welcomed Mr. Major's decision to go to the voters three months ahead of the legal deadline.
Mr. Kinnock said he was encouraged by cool reaction to the Lamont budget in London's financial district and the newest public opinion poll which showed Labour 3 percentage points ahead of the Tories.
Political analysts, however, appeared unanimous that the election is too close to call, with the strong likelihood that neither main party will gain an absolute majority.
Members of the small Liberal Democrat center party, led by Paddy Ashdown, greeted the election announcement with apparent enthusiasm, forecasting that they would win enough seats to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.
Conservative backbenchers, who are looking to Major to lead them to their party's fourth consecutive general election win, claimed that Mr. Lamont had caught Labour off guard by offering tax cuts to low-paid workers. But a number of Conservative backbenchers who will be fighting for their political lives on April 9 privately expressed disappointment that Lamont had not ordered deeper tax cuts.
Major is the first prime minister to order an early general election with the ruling party running second in polls.
His party will be fighting for reelection while Britain remains in deep recession, with unemployment heading toward 3 million and an already wide trade gap showing no sign of narrowing.