Scandal and plague do little to blunt Blair's popularity

In a much-anticipated move, Blair calls British elections for June 7.

Tony Blair has had a difficult four years as Britain's prime minister. His ruling Labour party is confronting accusations of misrule, corruption, and failure.

That's not usually the ideal time to call an election, but it's exactly what Mr. Blair did on Tuesday.

The much-anticipated move drew an immediate response from opposition leader William Hague: "We've got a government that will not be so much asking for a second term as a second chance, and what everyone will have to think about is can they afford to give them a second chance."

Yet despite such rhetoric, virtually no one has any doubts about the result of the June 7 vote. It is expected to seal Labour's leading position at a time when the right is dominant in the United States - the country with which Britain's electoral cycles usually run in synch.

The deeper uncertainties about British politics all lie beyond the election, and the real battles - over such issues as joining the European Union single currency (the euro), taxes, state health services, and education - may really start as soon as the polls close.

Opinion polls indicate less than half of voters with Mr. Hague's own Conservative Party think he would make a better prime minister than Blair. The only debate in the media, is over whether Labour's margin will be crushing, or merely huge.

"Any dissent with the government is not reflected in support for the opposition," says Michael Rush, professor of politics at the University of Exeter.

Blair made the election announcement at a girls' school in Southwark, a deprived inner-city area of South London. Earlier in the day, he had driven from his official residence at 10 Downing Street to Buckingham Palace, to ask the queen's permission to dissolve Parliament and hold an election June 7, a date that had been rumored for months.

After nearly two decades out of power, Labour swept landslide 1997 elections by moving itself to the center of British politics.

The Conservatives - in government since 1979, and the ruling party for most of the 20th century - had become tired and fractious, especially over the contentious issue of relations with the EU.

But there is little of that sense of triumph now among Labour supporters. For some, the party has shifted too far to the right of its traditional Socialist roots.

It has had to cope with a series of problems ranging from the devastating foot-and-mouth livestock epidemic to the collapse of the railway system, and attempts to blame everything on the preceding Conservative regimes haven't held up well.

Several members of the government have become embroiled in influence-peddling scandals, including Peter Mandelson, one of Blair's key lieutenants.

Still, Labour appears far ahead of its political rivals. An opinion poll commissioned by The Sun newspaper puts Labour support at 50 percent, the Conservatives at 32 percent, and the Liberal Democrats at 13 percent. The Sun, Britain's largest daily, predicted Blair would emerge from the election with an even larger majority. Labour currently holds 417 seats in the 659-member House of Commons. The Conservatives have 159, and third-place Liberal Democrats hold 47 seats.

While Hague insists publicly that the election remains winnable, Conservatives are regularly reported to expect a loss, and a leadership challenge is anticipated once the dust settles. Senior party figures have bickered semi-publicly about potential successors.

"Divided parties and unpopular leaders don't win elections," says Professor Rush.

As the campaigning got under way in earnest, Labour began by touting its record of moderate economic growth and unemployment that has dropped to its lowest rate in 25 years.

At a speech in London, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, Britain's finance minister, pledged to "stay the course of [economic] stability, because it is the foundation of everything we do; stability yesterday, today, and tomorrow."

He added that government plans to provide more then 50 billion ($71 million) in additional funding for schools, hospitals, and the transportation industry would not endanger that stability.

Hague, also speaking in London yesterday, touted a Conservative plan to cut taxes, declaring of Labour: "Never has a party taxed so much and achieved so little."

"The state of the economy has a great deal to do with the standing of the government," says Rush.

In the past, Labour has been dogged by criticism of its record on economic management, but that's changed under Mr. Brown, says Rush. "Labour has managed to establish its credentials on the economy, something it has never really managed before."

That in itself may cause problems. There is no love lost between Blair and Brown, who has positioned himself as a future Labour leader. They differ on the terms under which Britain might join the euro currency. Blair has committed the party to a referendum on issue.

With opinion polls suggesting 70 percent of Britons oppose euro membership, Hague has accused Blair of trying to avoid discussion of closer EU ties, a topic that divides his party as well.

Material from the wire services was used for this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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