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Press boost for Blair

Polls and bookmakers predict Blair is heading for a clear victory on June 7  

LONDON, England -- As campaigning in the UK's general election race enters its final phase, Labour has gained the support of two major national newspapers -- one for the first time ever.

Both The Times and the Financial Times express their support for Tony Blair in Tuesday's editions.

The Financial Times endorsed Labour at the last election, in 1997, but this is the first time The Times has backed the party in the newspaper's history.

In a leader column, The Times -- the world's oldest daily broadsheet -- tells its readers that Labour has consolidated many elements of Thatcherism, and "in this election, Labour deserves the votes of the reformers."

It adds: "We hope that Mr Blair has the wisdom to concentrate on the series of challenges that he has set out at home and to avoid a reckless continental adventure that could destroy both his premiership and his reputation.

"On that basis, and for the first time in its history, The Times offers a cautious but clear endorsement of the Labour Party in this election."

The support came as polls predicted Labour will achieve another landslide on Thursday.

One bookmaker has already declared Labour the winner and says it is paying out bets -- with over two days yet to go to polling day.

Britain's biggest bookmaker, Ladbrokes, declared Labour winner of the election on Monday.

It is refusing to accept further bets on the party winning a majority. It has agreed to immediately pay those who backed Blair to win.

"To all intents and purposes this race is finished. Nobody is backing the Liberal Democrats and nobody is backing the Conservatives and we as a bookmaker really didn't want to take any more bets on Labour," a spokesman for Ladbrokes told Reuters.

Blair, Conservative Party leader William Hague and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy all held press conferences on Monday before setting out on more campaigning around the country.

Hague's campaigning on Monday focused on his party's plans to appoint fewer ministers, fewer special advisers, announce a public inquiry into the foot-and-mouth outbreak and begin "a crusade for genuine reform in the EU" at a summit in Gothenburg, Sweden on June 15.

The Conservatives have also launched an appeal to voters to burst Blair's "bubble," warning that it would be bad for UK democracy if he was given another huge parliamentary majority like the one he swept to power with in 1997.

Blair described the new Conservative ploy as a "desperate last throw of the dice."

Hague: Appeal to
Hague: Appeal to "burst Blair's bubble"  

But Hague, speaking at Newport on Monday, said: "We have a Labour government, along with their Liberal lapdogs, who have taken this election for granted, who arrogantly predict they will win by a landslide.

"Well, we are going to teach them a lesson on Thursday."

However, the beleaguered Hague suffered a set back later in the day with the news that another former Tory minister had defected to a rival party.

Anthony Nelson, a trade minister in John Major's government up to 1997, announced that he was joining Blair's Labour Party.

Hague put a brave face on the news: "That's his choice. Every day we are meeting thousands of people who are ... moving from voting Labour at the last election to voting Conservative at this election."

The loss of Nelson, who is no longer a member of parliament but is now vice-chairman of Citigroup Bank and a supporter of euro entry, follows that of John Lee last week.

Lee, a defence minister and employment minister under Margaret Thatcher in 1980s, announced he was joining the Liberal Democrats because of the Conservatives' anti-Europe views.

The Lib Dems -- the UK's third largest political party -- meanwhile kicked off the frantic round of last-minute campaigning by setting its sights on becoming the country's second biggest political force.

Leader Kennedy claimed that only his party offered "a real chance for real change."

He accused both Labour and Conservative Parties of fudging the issues on key areas such as crime, health, the elderly and education.

Kennedy unveiled a poster parodying a Labour "Post-it note" pledge to put schools and hospitals first.

The poster reads: "Urgent reminder to Tony Blair -- schools and hospitals need more resources."

• The Labour Party
• The Conservative Party
• The Liberal Democrat
• Ladbrokes Bookmaker
• The Financial Times
• The Times

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