Blair calls election for May 5
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Prime Minister Tony Blair has called Britain's general election for May 5 after seeing the queen to ask for the dissolution of parliament.
Blair had delayed the much-expected announcement by a day due to the death of Pope John Paul II.
The British PM told reporters outside his Downing Street home he would campaign "to take hard-won economic stability, the investment in our public services, and entrench it, to make it last for the future and never return to the economic risks and the failing public services of the past."
Blair said: "It is a big choice and a fundamental choice and there is a lot at stake. We are proud of what we have achieved in the last eight years but we should never stand still."
CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said that Blair aimed to make the quality of public services such as health and education the focus of the campaign.
The PM met with ministers at 10 Downing Street before departing for Buckingham Palace for an audience with Queen Elizabeth II.
Meanwhile a clutch of opinion polls published Tuesday showed the main opposition Conservative Party has closed the gap on his ruling Labour Party. (Full story)
Public anger over the Iraq war and general disillusionment with Labour could slash Blair's parliamentary majority and the new polls showed his party has lost support to the Conservatives.
"The prime minister should be nervous about his coming encounter with the electorate," the Times newspaper said in an editorial with a front page headline proclaiming "Tory poll surge rattles Labour".
Two polls in The Guardian and Independent newspapers put Labour on a three percent lead over the Conservatives -- three points down on previous surveys. A third gave Blair's Labour a two percent lead.
A survey for the Financial Times of those who said they would definitely vote in a British general election gave the Conservatives a five point lead.
CNN's Oakley said that for all three main UK parties, the issue of getting out their core vote was going to be crucial as a low turnout was expected.
There was further bad news for Labour Tuesday after one of Blair's Labour candidates for parliament, Stephen Wilkinson, announced he was withdrawing his candidacy and switching parties to the Liberal Democrats.
"Like many former Labour voters and activists, I feel angry that Labour have become increasingly authoritarian and failed to safeguard civil liberties," he told Reuters. "Who would have thought that a Labour government would become a lap dog to George Bush's right wing Republican administration?"
Conservative leader Howard focused on what is seen as Blair's weak point -- his shrunken public trust ratings after the Iraq war. "The choice before voters on May 5 is very clear," Howard told party supporters at a London hotel.
"They can either reward Mr Blair for eight years of broken promises and vote for another five years of talk.
"Or they can vote Conservative, to support a party that's taken a stand and is committed to action on the issues that matter to hard-working Britons."
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy promised a campaign "positive and ambitious" for Britain. "I am not going to spend these next few weeks going around talking Britain down," he said. "I am going to be addressing people's hopes, not playing on people's fears."
Blair's election move followed a frantic few days since the death of the pope on Saturday, which caused Blair to postpone a Downing Street announcement which had been anticipated Monday.
But as expected Tuesday, Blair fired the starting gun for polling to take place on the same day as elections for 34 county councils across England, three unitary authorities, Northern Ireland council elections and contests for mayor in four English towns.
After the announcement Blair, Conservative leader Howard and Liberal Democrat leader Kennedy were due to fan out around the country to make their first campaign stops of the contest proper, following weeks of "phony war" campaigning.
Some political commentators say there is much to play for during the campaign and contrast it with 1997 and 2001 when Blair won triple-digit landslide majorities.
If he wins, Blair would make history by becoming the first ever Labour prime minister to clinch a third consecutive term.
At present Labour has a massive lead in the 659-seat House of Commons, with 410 MPs, a majority of 161 over all the other parties combined.
Official campaigning will start next week after the pope's funeral and wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, now scheduled for Saturday, although with the election date an open secret the race has been underway for months.
The Conservatives' pre-election campaign got off to a strong start as they targeted Labour on immigration and healthcare.
Labour, meanwhile, believes the economy is its trump card. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, viewed by most analysts as Blair's most likely successor, has presided over eight years of economic growth and low unemployment.
Labour's critics say higher spending has brought little improvement in schools and hospitals and instead led to overborrowing.
Under Britain's system, the prime minister can choose an election date any time within five years of the last vote and announce its timing about a month in advance.
Blair has said he intends to serve a full third term if Labour is re-elected but would not seek a fourth.