Saturday, October 30, 2004

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair, betting that successful Iraqi elections in January will boost his popularity, has ordered his closest aides to draw up plans for a snap general election in Britain the following month, the Sunday Telegraph has learned.

Alan Milburn, the Labor Party’s new head of election strategy, has been told to begin a television and poster advertising blitz in the New Year and to put the party on a war footing under the campaign slogan “Britain Is Working.”

Until now, an election had not been expected until May 5.

Mr. Blair is now understood to favor a February election, however, to maximize his present opinion poll advantage over Michael Howard’s Conservative Party.

He also hopes that Labor’s election campaign will benefit from a “Baghdad bounce,” following a successful staging of elections in Iraq at the end of January.

Mr. Blair’s advisers have told him that he continues to be vulnerable on the key issue of trust and that if he delays election day he will risk exposure to unforeseen problems both in Iraq and on domestic issues.

The last election was in June 2001, when Labor recorded a second landslide victory over the Conservatives, then led by William Hague.

Mr. Milburn is understood to be briefing leading members of his team on the new plans this weekend. They include the newly appointed vice-chairman of Labor’s general election planning group, Fraser Kemp, a senior government whip.

Mr. Kemp is credited with masterminding Labor wins in recent elections in Birmingham Hodge Hill and Hartlepool. He is well practiced in fighting quick campaigns.

Mr. Milburn has told the prime minister that he is confident of delivering Labor’s third successive victory if a decision is made to call the election in February.

In an attempt to make peace with Finance Minister Gordon Brown, whom he replaced as Labor’s chief election strategist, Mr. Milburn has invited Mr. Brown’s aides to daily briefings at Downing Street, from which they had been excluded since Mr. Milburn’s appointment.

Mr. Milburn’s team has decided that Labor’s reputation for economic stability should play a central role in the campaign. The party’s focus groups have shown that, while Labor has lost trust among voters, particularly over Iraq, its economic performance is its strongest single weapon over the Conservatives.

That is understood to be the thinking behind the use of the slogan “Britain Is Working,” which was tested during the local elections in May.

It carries echoes of the Conservative slogan “Labor Isn’t Working,” which helped to propel Margaret Thatcher into office in 1979.

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