Britain's political parties are poised to do battle in a general election widely expected to be called today for June 11. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Conservative Party chairman Norman Tebbit conferred over the weekend to make final arrangements for the three-week-long campaign.
They had before them results of last week's local elections, in which Conservative candidates (Tories) won 40 percent of the vote, the Labour Party's 31 percent, and 27 percent for the Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance.
But although the Conservatives did rather better than even their officials had expected, leading politicians of all parties believe that the coming election is likely to be closely contested.
They base this view on the calculation that the two main opposition parties may be able to challenge the Tories in key marginal constituencies - those where the Tories won the 1983 election with only modest majorities. And, if the two opposition parties score well, they may produce a ``hung'' Parliament in which the Tories could not count on an overall majority.
The Tories are believed to have prepared an election manifesto that promises a renewed assault on crime, a bid to improve teaching standards in schools, lower income tax, and cut unemployment.
Thatcher, prime minister since 1979, is expected to project herself as a determined and experienced leader, at home in foreign and domestic affairs. She is certain to make much of her government's determination to keep Britain a nuclear power with an independent deterrent. Labour favors abandoning the nuclear deterrent and asking the United States to withdraw its nuclear weapons from bases in Britain. The Alliance favors retaining a ``minimum deterrent,'' using either an upgraded Polaris system or cruise missiles. Like Labour, it believes the submarine-based Trident missile system, due to become operational in the '90s, should be scrapped.
Before the local election results, the ruling Conservatives had shown up strongly in most public opinion polls, which put them around 12 percent ahead of their opponents.
As things now stand, political sources predict the Conservatives can expect a House of Commons majority of 20 to 30 seats. But they concede that once the campaign gets under way, the Tory position could begin to erode.
These sources say the Alliance, under leaders David Owen and David Steel, would be likely to take away support from Labour and the Tories. Mr. Owen called the local election outcome a ``very good springboard into the general election.'' He pointed out the Alliance's net gain of 400 seats in the local polls, and called Labour's showing a ``disaster.''
What analysts find fascinating in the coming battle is the extent to which Labour and the Alliance will each try to assert themselves as the main threat to the Tories. Labour seems to face more problems because it has done badly in opinion polls.
The Alliance, formed in 1982, hopes to be able to score well enough to become the second largest party in the House of Commons and possibly to hold the balance of power in the next Parliament. Labour, on the other hand, has been a major party throughout most of this century and regards the Alliance as a political upstart. Labour leader Neil Kinnock has sworn that he would never agree to work with the Alliance in a hung Parliament.
But if the Alliance goes all out against the Tories, it could get enough electoral support to prompt the Labour leader to change his mind after polling day.
The reality, analysts here agree, is that probably neither of the two opposition parties can hope to win a majority. So they face one of two likely options: Either Thatcher and the Tories win outright, leaving Labour and the Alliance together in the parliamentary wilderness; or there is a hung Parliament, which puts the Alliance in a good position to deal with either Thatcher or Kinnock to form a coalition government.