, LONDON, Apr 6 – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown fired the starting gun Tuesday on a month-long election race, setting May 6 as the date for voting in what could be the closest-run poll for a generation.
A stern-faced Brown made the announcement in Downing Street flanked by his entire Cabinet after visiting Buckingham Palace to ask Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve parliament.
"It\’s probably the least well kept secret of recent years, but the queen has kindly agreed to the dissolution of parliament and a general election will take place on May 6," he said.
Brown\’s confirmation of a date widely reported for weeks triggers a month of campaigning in which his centre-left Labour will battle David Cameron\’s centre-right Conservatives, who are ahead in opinion polls.
If Labour wins, it will be the party\’s fourth consecutive term in office and its first under Brown, who took over as leader from Tony Blair in 2007. The Tories are vying for their first victory since a surprise win in 1992.
In a contest likely to be dominated by the economy, Brown, 59, is contrasting his role in steering Britain to safety after the global financial crisis with what he says is 43-year-old Cameron\’s inexperience.
"Britain is on the road to recovery and nothing we do should put that recovery at risk," he told reporters after confirming the date.
"Get the big decisions right — as we did in the last 18 months since the world recession — and jobs, prosperity and better standards of living will result.
"Get the big decisions wrong and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are diminished as a result."
Cameron, who has extensively modernised the party of Margaret Thatcher since taking over as leader in 2005, called it "the most important general election for a generation".
"It is about the future of our economy, it\’s about the future of our society, it\’s about the future of our country," he said.
"It comes down to this. You don\’t have to put up with another five years of Gordon Brown."
The Conservatives are ahead in opinion polls although the double-digit lead they held for much of Brown\’s premiership fell to single figures after January\’s announcement that Britain had emerged from its worst recession since World War II.
A Daily Express/Opinium poll Tuesday gave the Tories a 10-point lead while a Guardian/ICM poll put Labour four points behind Cameron\’s party.
Whoever wins faces tackling a crippling budget deficit of around 167 billion pounds (254 billion dollars, 188 billion euros).
Cameron wants swift cuts to public services to reduce the deficit but Brown says these must be delayed to protect the fragile recovery, saying the Conservative approach risks a double-dip recession.
The Conservatives need a huge swing of 6.9 percent to secure victory — equivalent to the landslide which swept Labour led by Blair to power in 1997.
Labour currently has 345 seats in the House of Commons, a working majority of 56, compared to the Conservatives\’ 193.
If, as polls suggest is possible, there is a hung parliament in which no party achieves an overall majority for the first time since 1974, the third party centre-left Liberal Democrats could play a key role in a minority or coalition government.
Their leader Nick Clegg told reporters Tuesday: "Now is the time for all those people who want real change and real fairness in Britain to choose something different and turn to the Liberal Democrats."
After Brown\’s announcement parliament will not be dissolved immediately — that is expected to happen on Monday.
Instead, there will be a period of several days of "wash-up" — a time when loose ends of legislation are tied up and parties barter to get certain laws passed. The new parliament is due to meet for the first time on May 18.