Britain is bracing for a May 6 general election that may alter the landscape of its politics — a race that offers at least three unpredictable outcomes and one of the most dramatic since Tony Blair defeated the Conservatives in 1997.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the long-awaited election date Tuesday as the resurgent Conservatives prepared for battle against the bedraggled Labour incumbents with the nation drowning in debt after a golden age of economic prosperity.
Youthful and charismatic Conservative leader David Cameron once seemed certain to grab power after 13 years of Labour rule — but tightening polls and quirks of the British election system leave the outcome uncertain. Whoever wins, Britain could well become an altered state with higher taxes, fewer services, tougher business regulations and less willingness to join expensive U.S.-led military campaigns.
"Last year, I didn't care at all about this election," said Jacob McDonald, a 24-year-old business graduate who has been on a job hunt for nearly a year. "But now I think this could actually be big — so big that it could to make or break my life in the next five years. I plan on voting, but haven't made a choice yet."
The election comes at a bruising time for Britain's main political parties — all three were stung in a scandal about expenses that exposed lawmakers who filed claims for everything from pornography to chandeliers at their country estates. Voters, meanwhile, lost jobs and homes as Britain struggled with the worst recession since World War II and the largest deficit among the Group of Seven nations.
In the end, voter disillusionment may help. But polls suggest it's more likely that for the first time since 1974, neither party will win an absolute majority in Parliament.
Polls have given Cameron's Tories a slight lead — between 4 and 10 percentage points — but Britain has an election system that at times has been stacked against the Conservatives because of voting districts. It is the majority of districts won — not the majority of votes — that will determine which party will lead the next government.
The Conservatives need to capture about 130 more seats in the House of Commons from Labour and other parties to win a majority. Labour now holds 345 of the House of Common's 646 seats. A party needs 326 seats to win a majority in government.
Recent district changes to reflect population shifts will give the Tories an estimated 12 more seats while Labour loses seven, according to the University of Plymouth. The recent changes and the expected gains may still be too few to give the Tories a majority lead, although polls indicate more people may be voting Tory this election.
Like U.S. congressional districts, district seats are allocated according to population, but Britain's system has been slow to catch up to massive shifts of population.
If the election result gives neither party a majority, a government could be delayed and parties forced to scramble for a coalition. It could also spell another election this year.
Brown, who has often been criticized for his wooden persona but admired for his intellectual prowess, promised Tuesday to "fight on behalf of hard working families on middle-class and modest incomes," and said only Labour, not the Conservatives, could be trusted to keep the economy out of a downturn.
A Labour defeat would bring to a close a British political era that began with Blair's landslide 1997 election victory, which saw unprecedented three successive electoral triumphs for the center-left party. But it would also be a crushing personal blow to the 59-year-old Brown, who waited until 2007 for Blair to step aside.
If the Conservatives beat their image as being the so-called "nasty party" of privilege, the 43-year-old Cameron could be the youngest prime minister in nearly two centuries since Lord Liverpool was elected at 42. Blair became prime minister days before his 44th birthday.
Cameron, who has been criticized by Labour for a lack of substance, has sought to replace his party's stuffy image with a more modern brand of "compassionate Conservatism," appointing more women and ethnic minorities as candidates for an organization long dominated by affluent white men like himself.
With his bicycle riding, informal "call-me-Dave" manner and young family — his wife Samantha is expecting their fourth child in September — Cameron appears best placed to benefit from a U.S.-styled personality-centered contest. Some see a parallel with Labour's former savior Blair.
"It's the most important election for a generation, and it comes down to this: You don't have to put up with another five years of Gordon Brown," he said Tuesday, urging that Tory was "voting for the fresh start our country so badly needs."
The third place Liberal Democrats' leader Nick Clegg said the election would be anything but the "two-horse race" between Labour and Conservatives.
"It is a very exciting opportunity for everyone in Britain who wants fairness and real change, who wants something different," Clegg said Tuesday, blaming Labour for what he called the illegal invasion of Iraq, corruption in Parliament and the failure to regulate the banks.
Labour lost a significant share of its seats in 2005 when voters blamed them for joining the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq.
An ICM poll published late Sunday by The Guardian newspaper showed Labour closing in on its main rival — climbing to within a few percentage points of the Tories. Other polls, however, showed larger Tory leads. The forecasts are based on the parties' current seats and how a significant swing in votes could alter the outcome.
Britain's struggling economy and enormous debt will dominate the campaign. Both Labour and the Conservatives say they will trim spending and slash the country's $250 billion deficit — but they differ on how deep, and how soon, to make cuts.
The Tories have pledged to reverse Labour's planned increase to national insurance, a payroll tax, and implement about 6 billion pounds in spending cuts this year. Labour says major cuts should be deferred until 2011 to give the economy more time to recover.
Cameron's party also plans to cut the number of lawmakers, offer tax breaks to married couples and overhaul Britain's education system. Brown promises a public referendum on changing Britain's voting system, improved cancer treatment and a new high-speed national rail network.
The major parties agree on international issues — both would keep British troops in Afghanistan and seek to preserve the so-called "special relationship" with the U.S.
The campaign will also include the first U.S.-styled TV debates among the leaders of Labour, the Conservatives and the third-placed Liberal Democrats.
Parliament will shut Monday for the start of campaign. Brown met with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday to ask her to dissolve Parliament.
While voter turnout in the election is likely to hover around 60 percent, Britain's enthusiasm for political betting remains strong.
Bookmakers say $30 million will rest on the election.
Bookmaker Paddy Power said the Conservatives were 1-6 favorites to win, with Labour at 7-2. The odds of a hung Parliament were 13-8.
Spokesman Darren Haines said for bookies "the most favorable outcome would be a Lib-Dem win" — a 200-1 longshot.