- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2001

British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday laid out his platform for an all-but-certain general election this spring, even as his Labor Party's least-favorite issue the future of the pound has unexpectedly surged to the fore.

Seeking to become the first Labor prime minister ever to win re-election, Mr. Blair said in a speech at a London school that his hoped-for second term would focus on fighting crime and improving education, health care and transportation.

Saying his first term had been about "reassurance" of his party's ability to govern, Mr. Blair pledged to pursue a second-term agenda that is "radical but firmly in the center ground."

Despite a substantial lead in the polls over the opposition Conservative Party, Mr. Blair's government has unexpectedly stumbled in recent weeks as it prepares for what most expect will be an early May election.

The prime minister lost his closest political adviser when Peter Mandelson, minister for Northern Ireland, was forced to resign late last month in a flap over help he had given a wealthy Indian entrepreneur on a passport application.

Mr. Blair himself moved the pound to the center of the British political debate by acknowledging in Parliament Wednesday that his government, if re-elected, would decide within two years whether to recommend that Britain junk the currency in favor of the European Union's euro.

The Labor government, divided internally over how to handle the issue, has attempted to fudge the euro question, even as Conservative party leader William Hague has vowed to make the preservation of the pound the centerpiece of his campaign.

"If the Conservatives win the next election, we will keep the pound," vowed Michael Portillo, lead spokesman for the Conservatives on financial matters. "The general election is the time to vote to keep the pound and the time to vote Conservative."

A leading poll last month gave Mr. Blair's Labor Party 51 percent of the vote, compared with 31 percent for the Conservatives and 14 percent for the pro-euro Liberal Democrats.

But the polls also show deep suspicion in Britain over the euro, with 71 percent saying in a Jan. 31 poll that they want to keep the pound. Despite clear signals from Mr. Blair's government that it wants Britain to embrace the euro, support for the pound actually rose 2 percent compared with a year earlier.

Mr. Blair did not mention the currency issue in his address to students and schoolteachers yesterday.

"Not today or in the lifetime of the next parliament can a euro referendum be won," Bob Worcester, chairman of the MORI polling organization, told the Bloomberg News agency.

Mr. Blair nevertheless remains a heavy favorite if he decides to call a vote this spring. His Labor government won a 179-seat majority in the 1997 election, the largest cushion in 150 years.

The government does not have to call elections until mid-2002, but favorable polls and the fear that its popularity may fall later this year have most analysts betting Mr. Blair will call a snap poll for May 3, the day when Britain holds local elections.

With an eye toward re-election, the government also has been carefully husbanding revenues in recent years in order to finance popular new public spending programs.

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

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