British elections set for May 1
Prime Minister Major, an underdog, predicts victory
March 17, 1997
Web posted at: 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT)
In this story:
LONDON (CNN) -- British Prime Minister John Major on Monday
called a national election for May 1, signaling the start of
a six-week campaign which is likely to include the first
broadcast debates between leaders of the major parties. (352K/16 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
"I think we'll win," Major said, even though his Conservative
party, in power for 18 years, is far behind a revitalized
Labor party in opinion polls. (256K/11 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
Major made the announcement outside the prime minister's
residence at 10 Downing Street, after meeting with Queen
Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and getting her formal
permission to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections.
Parliament will be dissolved by royal proclamation in early
April, followed by an election on May 1. The election will
involve all 659 seats in the House of Commons, the lower
house of the British Parliament.
Long campaign for Britain
The new Parliament will be summoned on May 7, Major said.
The election announcement was expected -- the Conservative
party's five-year term would have ended on May 22 anyway.
The six-week campaign, short by U.S. standards, is the
longest election period in Britain in 80 years.
In Britain's parliamentary system, voters can only choose a
local member of Parliament. The leader of the party which
wins a majority of seats at stake in the House of Commons
becomes prime minister.
If no party wins a majority, the prime minister is likely to
be the leader of the largest party in the coalition.
Government suffers despite economy
The Conservatives have transformed the face of Britain since
they took power in 1979, privatizing many industries and
reducing the power of trade unions as they succeeded in
halting decades of economic decline.
But their opponents argue that Britain has become a more
unequal, harsher society. Despite presiding over a growing
economy, Major's government also has suffered from divisions
over European policy, a ban on beef exports because of mad
cow disease, and public concerns about crime, education and
"(The election) will be between a Conservative party that is
an utterly disorganized shambles ... and a Labor party that
is genuinely new Labor," Labor Party leader Tony Blair said
Labor, which was beaten by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, has
moved well to the right in recent years.
Like the Conservatives, Blair advocates tight control on
spending and inflation, and tough policies against crime. He
says he has no plans to reverse the curbs on union power
enacted by the Conservatives.
Labor has wide lead in polls
But Labor has promised to make significant changes, including
abolishing the vote of hereditary aristocrats in the House of
Lords, and creating regional parliaments for Scotland and
Fueling speculation that an unprecedented televised debate
between the party leaders will take place during the
campaign, Major said he "very much wants to" debate Blair,
whose Labor Party had a 25 percentage point lead in a poll
published by The Sunday Times newspaper.
Major said he would not rule out a three-way debate with
Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Britain's
In the newspaper's poll, Labor had 52 percent support, the
Conservatives 27 percent, and the Liberal Democratic Party 13
percent. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage
No party in power has ever recovered from such a big poll
deficit so close to a general election.
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