London: Britain will vote in a general election on 6 May, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced on Tuesday, firing the gun on what is set to be the closest poll race in nearly 20 years.
Brown made the announcement in Downing Street flanked by his entire Cabinet after visiting Buckingham Palace to ask Queen Elizabeth II to issue a royal proclamation dissolving the current parliament.
“It will come as no surprise to all of you, and 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 6 May,” he said.
Brown’s announcement triggers a month-long general election campaign in which his centre-left Labour party will battle to overturn the opinion poll lead held by David Cameron’s centre-right Conservatives, who are bidding to take power for the first time in 13 years.
In a well-trailed contest likely to be dominated by the economy, Brown, 59, is contrasting his role in steering Britain to economic recovery after the global financial crisis with what he says is 43-year-old Cameron’s inexperience.
Cameron, who has extensively modernised the once pro-market party of Margaret Thatcher since taking over as leader in 2005, called it “the most important general election for a generation”.
Speaking shortly before Brown, he said Britain needed a “fresh start” and told supporters: “If we win this election, there will be real change.”
Cameron’s Conservatives had established a long-term double-digit lead over Brown’s Labour before January’s announcement that Britain had emerged from its worst recession since World War II.
That then dropped away to single figures but has begun to widen out again in recent days.
A survey for the Daily Express newspaper Monday gave the Tories a commanding 10-point lead, which could give them a majority in the Commons.
But in a sign of the variations in opinion polls, a survey for the Guardian newspaper the same day showed Labour closing the gap, just four points behind Cameron’s party.
Whoever wins faces having to tackle a crippling budget deficit of at least 167 billion pounds (254 billion dollars, 188 billion euros) and a fragile economy which some experts say could still dip back into recession.
Brown is fighting his first general election as prime minister, having taken over unopposed from Tony Blair in June 2007.
The Conservatives need a huge swing of 6.9% 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. It secured three clear victories in general elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005.
If, as polls suggest is possible, no one party achieves an overall majority, 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: “Today is the beginning of the end for Gordon Brown”.
He added: “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.”
A highlight of the general election campaign is likely to be the first-ever television debates between the men vying to be prime minister.
Brown, Cameron and Clegg will go head-to-head in three live 90-minute programmes.
After Brown announces the election date, 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 pieces of legislation passed.
Whoever wins the election, the composition of the House of Commons will change dramatically following the poll.
A total of 144 lawmakers are stepping down, a record since at least World War II - a large number in connection with last year’s scandal over their expenses.