Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Scandal and Plague Do Little to Blunt Blair's Popularity ; in a Much-Anticipated Move, Blair Calls British Elections for June 7

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Scandal and Plague Do Little to Blunt Blair's Popularity ; in a Much-Anticipated Move, Blair Calls British Elections for June 7

Article excerpt

Tony Blair has had a difficult four years as Britain's prime minister. His ruling Labour party is confronting accusations of misrule, corruption, and failure.

That's not usually the ideal time to call an election, but it's exactly what Mr. Blair did on Tuesday.

The much-anticipated move drew an immediate response from opposition leader William Hague: "We've got a government that will not be so much asking for a second term as a second chance, and what everyone will have to think about is can they afford to give them a second chance."

Yet despite such rhetoric, virtually no one has any doubts about the result of the June 7 vote. It is expected to seal Labour's leading position at a time when the right is dominant in the United States - the country with which Britain's electoral cycles usually run in synch.

The deeper uncertainties about British politics all lie beyond the election, and the real battles - over such issues as joining the European Union single currency (the euro), taxes, state health services, and education - may really start as soon as the polls close.

Opinion polls indicate less than half of voters with Mr. Hague's own Conservative Party think he would make a better prime minister than Blair. The only debate in the media, is over whether Labour's margin will be crushing, or merely huge.

"Any dissent with the government is not reflected in support for the opposition," says Michael Rush, professor of politics at the University of Exeter.

Blair made the election announcement at a girls' school in Southwark, a deprived inner-city area of South London. Earlier in the day, he had driven from his official residence at 10 Downing Street to Buckingham Palace, to ask the queen's permission to dissolve Parliament and hold an election June 7, a date that had been rumored for months.

After nearly two decades out of power, Labour swept landslide 1997 elections by moving itself to the center of British politics.

The Conservatives - in government since 1979, and the ruling party for most of the 20th century - had become tired and fractious, especially over the contentious issue of relations with the EU.

But there is little of that sense of triumph now among Labour supporters. For some, the party has shifted too far to the right of its traditional Socialist roots.

It has had to cope with a series of problems ranging from the devastating foot-and-mouth livestock epidemic to the collapse of the railway system, and attempts to blame everything on the preceding Conservative regimes haven't held up well.

Several members of the government have become embroiled in influence-peddling scandals, including Peter Mandelson, one of Blair's key lieutenants. …

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