- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2001

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday sounded the starting gun on a four-week national election campaign in which his biggest challenge may not be winning supporters, but getting them to bother casting a ballot.

Armed with a lopsided lead in public opinion polls, the 48-year-old prime minister set a June 7 date for general elections, almost a year before he and his Labor Party would have been obliged to face the voters.

Bolstered by a healthy economy, Labor is a commanding favorite over the main opposition Conservative Party, which has shown no signs of recovering support in four years.

Britain´s ever-enterprising bookmakers made Mr. Blair a prohibitive 20-to-1 favorite, and more conventional gauges of his support public opinion polls consistently point to double-digit leads for the prime minister.

All this should make any politician happy but that´s leaving out the boredom factor.

"There is a real danger that Labor´s overwhelming lead in the polls and the meltdown of the Conservative Party is going to lead to the triumph of apathy and abstention," the Sunday Times said in describing the mood of the electorate as "a giant yawn."

Conservative leader William Hague, already out campaigning as Mr. Blair started the election countdown clock ticking, took a combative tone.

"When Tony Blair called the election this afternoon, he wasn´t so much running on his record as running away from his record, not so much asking for a second term as asking for a second chance," Mr. Hague, 40, told cheering supporters in Watford, outside London.

Conservatives claim that a second term for Mr. Blair would bring higher crime, higher taxes and higher fuel prices. Mr. Hague also played on some Britons´ fears of ceding too many powers to the European Union, promising supporters to "give you back your country."

Mr. Blair, whose 1997 landslide victory ended 18 consecutive years of Conservative government, inaugurated the campaign with a speech at a London girls´ secondary school, urging supporters not to be complacent about the outcome.

"Though we can take pride in many achievements … we know we still have so much to do, so many challenges to overcome," he said.

Earlier, the prime minister went to Buckingham Palace for a 15-minute meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, whose consent he needed to dissolve Parliament. That likely will happen Monday.

Mr. Hague has good reason to fear a historic drubbing for his party. Polls suggest support for the Conservatives is running at 50-year lows.

In monthly Gallup tallies since the last campaign, the Conservatives trailed by an average of 23 points. In April´s survey, half of the self-described Conservative voters said the party wasn´t ready to govern again.

The Conservatives were trounced in the 1997 election that brought Mr. Blair to power, winning only 30.7 percent of the popular vote compared with Labor´s 43.2 percent.

Mr. Blair was believed to have favored an even earlier election May 3 but passed up an opportunity to call one then because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic. Last week, in what was seen as a clear signal he intended to go ahead with a June 7 vote, the prime minister said the costly outbreak of the livestock disease was being brought under control.

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