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Britain's Major calls for elections May 1

Prime Minister John Major on Monday called a national election for May 1, a vote that is widely seen as likely to end his Conservative Party's 18 years in power.

Major also said that he would face his opponent, Tony Blair, the leader of the Labor Party, in televised debates, a first in British politics.

Major, who trails Blair by 25 points in a poll published in the Sunday Times this week, had turned aside an invitation for such a face-to-face encounter with Neil Kinnock, his Labor opponent in the last general election five years ago, telling the House of Commons: "Every party politician that expects to lose tries that trick of debate, and every politician who expects to win says no."

On Monday, he embraced the idea, put forward by Blair months ago, in what appeared to signal the Conservatives' "presidential" strategy of putting forward the 53-year-old prime minister himself as the quarrelsome party's greatest asset.

The party hopes that Major's rumpled cardigan-sweatered folksiness will compare favorably with the flashier and more youthful image of his 43-year-old opponent that has been polished to a high gleam by his marketing-oriented handlers.

Dressed in a pink shirt and light patterned tie, Major made his announcement in front of his official residence at 10 Downing St. moments after returning from Buckingham Palace. There, in keeping with tradition, he had asked the queen to dissolve Parliament on April 8 in preparation for the election.

Major said his party had overseen a "revolution in choice, opportunity and living standards" and deserved the chance to continue. "We have changed this country," he said. "We have changed it immeasurably for the better. We have not finished those changes."

Under the British electoral system, there are no fixed election dates, and the prime minister must only call an election within five years of having taken office.

Major had waited until the last possible moment in the hope that voters would start to credit the Tories for the significant economic recovery that Britain has experienced since 1992. While the economic indicators have continued to rise, however, the popularity of the Conservatives, beset by internal bickering, has continued to decline.

Blair eagerly took note of this phenomenon in welcoming Major's announcement on Monday, saying: "Most people look at the Conservatives and think they are rather incompetent, rather tired and offering rather poor leadership for the country."

And, as he has been doing in recent weeks, he counseled against overconfidence. "I don't take anything for granted," he said. "I am the eternal warrior against complacency."

Slipping into some characteristically apocalyptic language, Blair said: "We are on the verge of a new millennium. There is so much this country can do. So much talent, resource and energy amongst its people. I want a new government to come in with different values and different priorities to lead a national renewal which will be at the heart of everything we want to achieve."

The Conservatives under Major and his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, have governed Britain since 1979 but are given little chance of emerging this time with what would be their fifth straight national election victory.

Since becoming the Labor Party's leader three years ago, Blair has transformed his party into a centrist movement that has abandoned its socialist past, reduced its dependency on trade union financing and broadened its membership to reduce the influence of left-wing factions that have cost it past elections.

Eager to shed its reputation for radicalism, Labor has limited proposals for major change to voting reform in the House of Lords and proposals for considering the establishment of legislatures in Scotland and Wales. The party has gone to extraordinary lengths to head off traditional "tax and spend" charges from the Conservatives, promising it will stick to projected Tory spending limits for the next two years and not raise personal income taxes for the next five.

"It would be ironic indeed," Major said, "if those parties that have opposed all the things that have brought us to our present standard of living were to pretend themselves that they were capable of taking it forward."

Paddy Ashdown, the leader of Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, has derided this Labor pre-electoral tendency to ape the Conservatives as "synchronized swimming."

On Monday, Ashdown, whose party attracts some 13 percent in polls, compared with Labor's 52 percent and the Conservatives' 27, said he also wanted to be included in the scheduled debates.