British PM Brown calls election for May 6


British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Tuesday will set May 6 as the date for a parliamentary election which could bring down the curtain on 13 years of rule by his center-left Labour Party.

Brown met Queen Elizabeth to request she dissolve parliament, a formality which will mark the start of a month-long campaign for one of the most unpredictable elections in Britain for almost two decades.

The prime minister hosted a meeting of his cabinet before setting off for Buckingham Palace in his official car.

The opposition Conservatives lead Labour in opinion polls. But the election result is far from certain as public support for both main parties remains volatile and the opposition faces a big challenge in securing power.

An ICM poll in Tuesday’s Guardian newspaper showed Labour only four percentage points behind the Conservatives and on course to remain the largest party, albeit without an overall majority.

But a separate YouGov poll for the Sun newspaper, showed the Conservatives enjoying a 10 point lead. An Opinion poll for the Daily Express showed the same.

But even those last two polls point to a hung parliament in which no party has an overall majority because support for the Conservatives is less efficiently distributed across Britain’s 650 parliamentary constituencies.

With the exception of Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, no party has secured more than a five percent swing in the national vote at a general election since 1950. The Conservatives require a swing of 6.9 percent to secure an outright win.

An inconclusive election result is rare in Britain and is the nightmare scenario for financial markets, which want a clear outcome and the promise of firm action to tackle a budget deficit running at almost 12 percent of GDP.

“Politics are taking center stage in the UK. The ICM poll has highlighted political uncertainty which is weighing on sterling today,” said Audrey Childe-Freeman, currency strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman.

The threat of a hung parliament, where no party has an overall majority, has helped knock sterling down almost 10 percent versus the dollar this year alone.

ECONOMY TAKES Center STAGE
How best to run an economy slowly emerging from the worst recession since World War Two is likely to be the central theme in the campaign, entwined with issues such as how best to manage public services in straitened times.

Labour argues that Brown has steered Britain through turbulent economic times and to hand over now to an inexperienced opposition would jeopardize recovery.

“The people of this country have fought too hard to get Britain on the road to recovery to allow anybody to take us back on the road to recession,” Brown said in a statement previewing his campaign themes.

The Conservatives, led by former public relations executive David Cameron, have long said they would cut the deficit harder and faster than Labour, but have now promised to exempt most workers from a rise in payroll tax that Labour plans from 2011.

That has won applause from the Conservatives’ traditional business supporters but Labour says the plans do not add up.

“We’re fighting this election for the Great Ignored. Young, old, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight,” Cameron said in a statement, showing how he has tried to make his party more inclusive.

The outgoing parliament, which has served a full five years, has been tarnished by a scandal over members’ expenses that angered Britons. As many as 150 members of parliament are stepping down, many with reputations harmed by the scandal.

All three main parties have suffered and some analysts expect fringe parties and independent candidates to pick up extra votes at the polls.

Adding spice to the campaign will be an innovation in British politics, live television debates between Prime Minister Brown, Conservative leader Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg.

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