- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday set May 5 for a general election, a contest that pundits say he will win despite new polls that show his popularity rapidly fading.

The election campaign is certain to see Mr. Blair and his government come under fire about a range of issues, including immigration and asylum, a rise in serious crime and accusations of running dirty hospitals and a rail system described as the worst in Europe.

Even as the prime minister went through the formality of asking Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve Parliament, four newly published surveys indicated his ruling Labor Party will see sizeable losses in the 161-seat majority it holds in the House of Commons, Parliament’s lower chamber.

One poll by the Mori organization for the Financial Times newspaper suggested that Mr. Bair could lose. Among those interviewed who say they definitely will vote, 39 percent were Conservatives, a solid five points ahead of the ruling Laborites.

“I have just been to Buckingham Palace to ask the queen to dissolve Parliament, which she has graciously consented to do,” Mr. Blair told reporters after his 20-minute meeting with the monarch.

“And there will be a general election in Britain on May 5,” he said, confirming speculation that had been rife for nearly two months.

The prime minister’s announcement had been expected Monday, but was overtaken by a series of events, not least of which was the Saturday death of Pope John Paul II, the direct reason for a 24-hour delay.

Despite the widespread anticipation of a May 5 election, the queen’s dissolution of Parliament that is expected next Monday has left the government facing the prospect of running out of time to get some of its most-favored legislation enacted.

There is little chance now that Mr. Blair will get approval of the compulsory identity cards he wants to combat crime and terrorism.

Nor is legislation to make it a crime to practice or incite religious hatred likely to get an OK in the time left in this session.

Of overriding concern to the prime minister, and the other 658 members of Parliament whose seats are up for grabs, were several new opinion polls showing Mr. Blair and his Labor government still ahead — but with leads that are steadily narrowing as the 30-day campaign begins.

Other polls included one by the Populus organization for the Times of London newspaper, which had the Labor Party down two percentage points from last month, to 37 percent against 35 percent for the main opposition Conservatives (up three points), with the Liberal Democrats down one point, to 19 percent of those surveyed.

The NOP organization’s poll for the Independent newspaper had Labor with a three-point lead, favored by 36 percent of those interviewed. But that was down three points from last month. The Conservatives lost one point, to 33 percent.

Mr. Blair has two landslide victories, in 1997 and again in 2001, to his credit and although the numbers have fluctuated, he has rarely given up his lead in the scores of opinion polls that have been conducted over those eight years.

This time, it looks like a far closer race. Most analysts are predicting that while Labor will end up with nothing like the current 161 figure, its majority in Parliament should finish up with a comfortable margin.

But the prime minister’s role as the key ally to President Bush in the increasingly unpopular war and subsequent violent upheavals in Iraq has diminished his popularity.

Moreover, Conservative leader Michael Howard has upped the ante with his pledges to crack down on immigration, illegal aliens and crime — and to spend less in doing so.

“It’s a big choice, and there’s a lot at stake,” conceded Mr. Blair as he and his major opponents, Mr. Howard and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, fanned out across the country to woo voters.

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