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Times throws weight behind Labour

Tony Blair
The Times broke with historical precedent in endorsing Tony Blair's Labour Party  

LONDON, England -- Breaking dramatically with precedent, The Times newspaper endorsed Tony Blair's Labour Party's UK election campaign on Tuesday.

For the first time in its history, The Times said it was offering a "cautious, but clear" endorsement of Labour.

The backing from Britain's oldest newspaper, historically a bulwark of the establishment, gave Labour an added boost just 48 hours ahead of general elections in which the party is expected to stage a rout. Europe
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The move, coupled with a similar nod to Labour from the Financial Times, came as Conservative leader William Hague, shown trailing badly in the opinion polls, insisted he was still in the race in a TV interview.

"The Labour Party have been talking about a landslide victory," Hague told the GMTV breakfast show. "That's very arrogant."

Hague also played down the back-to-back endorsements for his rival from two of the heaviest hitters in British journalism.

"We won't be getting over-upset about that. Different newspapers support different parties and so be it. It is the people who decide."

Asserting that "most fruits of the (Thatcherite) 1980s have looked safe in Blair's hands," The Times said Labour "has placed itself in the right territory" in areas ranging from schools to public health to policing.

"Mr Blair, either out of conviction or out of fear that his proposed expenditure increases will be inadequate, is likely to blend Thatcherite means with social democratic ends in a manner which will benefit public services.

"The electors would be best advised to let him continue what he has begun."

The Times' endorsement echoed that bestowed on Labour at the last general elections in 1997 by the traditionally right-leaning Sun tabloid, owned by the Australian-born media magnate Rupert Murdoch.

The fillips for Blair's campaign coincided with a statement from Italy's outgoing prime minister, Giulano Amato, that he was routing for a Labour landslide to help draw Britons closer to the idea of a more integrated Europe.

"Italians are very pro-European even if they know Europe little," Amato said.

"I personally expect and hope that an overwhelming victory by Tony Blair will allow this pro-European sentiment to be shared by British citizens as well."

The comments were a veiled reference to Britain's equivocation in joining Europe's single currency, the euro, in which 12 of the 15 EU members currently participate.

Blair has said that while he supports British entry into the euro zone, he says any ultimate decision on whether to join must be contingent on Britain's meeting five economic criteria devised by his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown -- and on the outcome of a subsequent referendum put to the British people.

By contrast, Hague has made the Conservative Party's vigorous opposition to euro membership a cornerstone of his campaign -- to the dismay of some dissident conservatives who view Hague's "Save the Pound" drive as a poor campaign strategy.

Blair, for his part, has sought to play down talk of a landslide victory in recent days, fearing that voters may simply stay away from the polls if a Labour victory is made to appear inevitable.

The nightmare scenario for Labourites is what happened in 1995 elections in the Australian state of Queensland. Then, the badly-trailing opposition clinched the election in a stunning upset after warning voters of the perils of a landslide victory for their rivals.

Blair's irritability over the landslide speculation bubbled to the surface in scolding remarks to reporters while campaigning in a marginal Labour constituency.

"All this talk of majorities we don't have a majority. The election's not happened," he said, in remarks carried by Reuters.

But on other fronts, Labourites were gearing up for a final sprint on Tuesday.

Showing their new-technology savvy, party activists fired off electronic text messages to mobile phones across Britain.

Among the more standard salvos was: "TB 4PM on Jun7" (Tony Blair for Prime Minister on June 7) and X 4 schls, hosps first, X Lbr on Jun7" (Vote for schools, hospitals first -- Vote Labour on June 7.)

The Conservatives, meanwhile, targeted key voters in undecided districts with a barrage of e-mails aimed at getting would-be supporters to the polls.

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