- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2001

LONDON — A last-minute surge by William Hagues Conservative Party in the polls in advance of todays parliamentary election seemed more likely to trouble British gamblers than Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose Labor Party remained assured of another comfortable majority.

The governing party, seeking its first back-to-back victories since World War II, had slipped in the final voter surveys to a lead of 11 points. That is not likely to block Mr. Blair from another overwhelming victory, but it will confound thousands of bettors who, bookmakers report, have in recent weeks been banking on an ever-larger Labor victory.

In fact, Mr. Blair´s biggest concern in the final days of the campaign has been trying to ensure that apathy does not translate into the lowest voter turnout in half a century.

With little doubt about the outcome, the greatest interest has been in Britain´s legal betting shops, where gamblers can balance the odds by trying to predict the number of seats Labor will win in the 659-seat Parliament.

"Because Labor was expected to have a landslide victory, spread betting has come into its own," said Wally Pyrah, director of public relations for Sporting Index Ltd., one of the largest of four spread-betting companies in Britain with 25,000 customers, including online users.

Mr. Pyrah and others also are accepting bets on esoteric questions ranging from the number of women who will make it into the House of Commons to the number of times Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott — who made news last month by punching a protester — will be hit with an egg.

Mr. Pyrah, whose betting house offers a spread much as Las Vegas casinos do for football games, said the bettors had been predicting as recently as three weeks ago the Conservatives would come through with 194 to 200 seats. That figure has come down to between 162 and 168 seats in recent days, he said.

But that judgment was contradicted in the latest polling results yesterday, when the Guardian newspaper published a poll showing support for Mr. Blair had slipped by 4 percentage points to leave him an 11-point lead.

Another survey of 50 political analysts conducted by Kalends, a Reuters news agency online company, showed Mr. Blair´s majority could drop to as few as 150 seats from the current 179 seats. If all those seats went to the Conservatives, they would emerge with 194.

Such a pared-down result, compared with Labor´s expectations of only a week ago, would set the stage for a fight over whether Britain should adopt the euro as the European currency in place of the pound sterling and, beyond that, over how closely Britain would be integrated into the European Union.

Oddly, much of Mr. Blair´s support comes from the right. Two influential conservative publications, the Times of London newspaper and the Economist news weekly, gave him their endorsements this week, with the Economist calling Mr. Blair "the only credible conservative currently available." It was the first time the Times had endorsed a Labor candidate. The Economist ran a cover caricature of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher´s hairdo superimposed over Mr. Blair´s face, wearing her trademark pearl earrings, as if anointing him the heir to Mrs. Thatcher´s legacy.

The prime minister´s biggest fear is that voters will dismiss the election with a yawn and stay home.

"Political history is littered with examples of so-called 'sure things´ which didn´t turn out to be sure things," Mr. Blair said in a television interview.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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