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Blair head-to-head with opponent


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British Prime Minister Tony Blair calls May 5 election.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Prime Minister Tony Blair went head to head with Conservative challenger Michael Howard in lively exchanges in parliament with an election campaign in Britain firmly under way.

The two men returned to the House of Commons Wednesday for a last pre-election joust at prime minister's questions.

Howard accused Blair of breaking promises on national insurance, immigration and university top-up fees and said repeatedly: "Why should anyone believe him again?"

The PM hit back by attacking Howard's record while a minister in a Conservative government.

Blair said that in office the Tory leader had been responsible for the hugely unpopular poll tax, a one million rise in unemployment and a fall in police numbers while opposing Britain's minimum wage. Voters would judge him on that, he said.

Unlike in the United States, British political leaders tend not to face each other in live televised debates meaning this was likely to be the last time they were face-to-face before polling day.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy accused Blair of failing the young and old. He attacked Labour plans for university top-up fees and condemned the fact most women still did not get a full state pension in their own right.

CNN';s European Political Editor Robin Oakley said with opinion polls showing public opinion very volatile, Britain was going to see the liveliest and sharpest election campaign since 1992.

The political focus remained on parliament Wednesday as Blair's ministers scrambled to turn outstanding bills into law.

Blair announced a May 5 polling date on Tuesday and then took to the campaign trail, as did opposition counterparts Howard and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.(Full story)

Pope John Paul's funeral on Friday and the royal wedding of heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles a day later are likely to delay the campaign proper for a few days. Blair will attend both ceremonies.

In the meantime, ministers were rushing outstanding legislation through parliament before it dissolves Monday.

Officials said only about 16 of 28 bills would make it and warned parliamentarians to be prepared for late-night sessions on Wednesday and Thursday, though members facing tight votes in their constituencies were being allowed to return to their home areas to begin campaigning.

High profile casualties will include government plans to introduce compulsory identity cards, which it says will help target potential terrorists, and a section of the Serious and Organized Crime Bill outlawing incitement to religious hatred.

Government business manager Peter Hain blamed opposition Conservatives for thwarting law that Muslim leaders say they would welcome. "They bear full responsibility for blocking it and I am sure the Muslim communities right across Britain will take very careful note of that," Hain said.

Since waging war in Iraq, many Muslims -- traditional Labour supporters -- have turned against Blair. They are now a major target group for all parties.

All lost bills could be reintroduced if the ruling Labour Party wins the May 5 election as polls suggest.

Economy

Blair says eight years of economic stability will allow him to entrench investment in key public services, and accuses the Conservatives of planning to slash that money.

He repeated that message in a handwritten letter to readers of the traditionally Labour supporting Daily Mirror newspaper.

In the 5-page note, published in the paper's Wednesday edition, Blair acknowledged "big disagreements" over Iraq, but urged voters to look at Labour's economic record.

Howard says "smirking" Blair has broken a litany of promises since taking power in 1997 and has lost the trust of the people.

Kennedy, pledging a positive campaign, will emphasis that his was the only major UK party to oppose war in Iraq.

Other election developments

  • An opinion poll on Wednesday backed a raft of surveys this week in suggesting a tight contest for the first time since 1992. A YouGov survey for Sky Television put both Labour and the Conservatives on 36 percent. A clutch of opinion polls published Tuesday showed the Conservatives had closed the gap on Labour. (Full story)
  • Nick Herbert, former head of a right wing think tank, was named as fired Conservative MP Howard Flight's successor to stand in the Conservative constituency of Arundel and South Downs. Flight announced he had ended his running row with party leader Michael Howard and would not stand as an independent. Howard ruled that the MP could not stand as a Conservative candidate again after comments suggesting that the party had a programme of secret spending cuts appeared in the press. Flight had already quit as a deputy chairman of the party over the incident.
  • Blair accused Conservatives of "contemptible" hypocrisy over Iraq as he was challenged again by an opposition MP over the legal advice given to the Cabinet by Attorney General Lord Goldsmith. Blair said he was happy to debate Iraq with people who "disagreed fundamentally" with going to war. But he added: "What I find contemptible are those parts of the Conservative Party that agreed with the war in Iraq, were urging the war in Iraq upon us and now attempt to resile from that position. I don't think that will command respect anywhere."

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