The election's here - at last

The Prime Minister yesterday pressed the button for a May 5 General Election. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES previews the battle in the weeks ahead as the Conservatives close the gap in the opinion polls.

The Prime Minister yesterday pressed the button for a May 5 General Election. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES previews the battle in the weeks ahead as the Conservatives close the gap in the opinion polls.

AT last, the phoney war of words is over. After a warm-up stretching back to New Year, polling day has been set for May 5, the same day as elections in England for the shire counties.

The important job of choosing who runs county halls up and down the country will now be pushed firmly into the background as national politics command the attention of newspapers and broadcasting organisations.

Tony Blair, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy will be criss-crossing the regions and nations of the UK drumming up votes from an electorate which the polls show is largely turned off by the spiteful and personal name calling.


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The 2001 General Election saw one of the lowest ever turn-outs. The indications are that even fewer people will bother to vote on May 5, which can only be to the benefit of the Conservatives.

Labour fears apathy by its own supporters, still angry over the Iraq war, will lead to the Tories and Liberal Democrats gaining scores of seats.

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Key election issues will be the state of the economy, taxes, public spending especially on the health service, immigration and asylum.

The Conservatives expect the ban on hunting with hounds and the state of rural services will enable them to pick up some marginal seats in the shires, especially the East Midlands, the South West, and East Anglia.

The Liberal Democrats aim to cash in on continuing public concern over the war in Iraq, but face a battle for the far left vote from George Galloway's Respect Party.

With Tony Blair not enjoying the popularity of his first five years in office, largely down to the issue of trust following the decision to back the Americans in Iraq, the Conservatives and Lib Dems are hoping to cash in on voter disaffection.

While the polls point to Conservative gains from Labour, the Tories have to fend off an attack on their flanks from the Liberal Democrats, who have cheekily rebranded themselves the real opposition to Labour.

East Anglia will see some of the key battlegrounds.

In Braintree, sitting Labour MP Alan Hurst is defending a majority of 358, the most marginal Labour seat in the UK after Dorset South. A swing to the Tories of just 0.36% would give victory to second-time Tory challenger Brooks Newmark.

A few miles away in Harwich, Labour's Ivan Henderson faces a tough battle to see off Conservative opponent Douglas Carswell. Mr Henderson achieved a remarkable result in 2001, increasing his majority from the 1,216 of 1997 to 2,596. The Liberal Democrats are mounting their first serious challenge in the seat since 1987, with Keith Tully going all out to grab the anti-war vote and cash in on the issue of trust in the Prime Minister. UKIP will have a high level campaign from Euro MP and Frinton resident Jeffrey Titford.

Elsewhere in the East of England, incumbent Labour MPs face tough battles with the Conservatives in Welwyn Hatfield (majority 1,196), Hemel Hempstead (3,742) Great Yarmouth (4,564), and Harlow (5,228).

In the unlikely event of the Tory vote collapsing even further than the electoral disasters of 1997 and 2001, Labour will be looking to gain Bedfordshire South-West (majority 776) and Castle Point in south Essex (majority 985) with Bury St Edmunds - where Tory David Ruffley won by 2,503 - a long shot.

The Liberal Democrats fancy their chances of adding to their two current MPs in Colchester and Norfolk North. They have targeted Labour-held Cambridge, Watford and St Albans, as well as the once-Tory stronghold of Norfolk South (majority 6,893), where MP Richard Bacon is up against Dr Ian Mack.

Although the Tories say publicly they aim to win the election, the electoral arithmetic is against them. Large areas of Britain are devoid of any Tory representation, with the party banished from all Britain's cities except London, and they have a mere handful of seats in metropolitan England, one in Scotland, and none in Wales.

Even at the height of Margaret Thatcher's popularity and the rise of the Social Democrats, Labour had representatives in all corners of mainland Great Britain.

The Lib Dems are ruthlessly targeting key Tory shadow cabinet members David Davis, Theresa May, Tim Collins and Oliver Letwin, who looks highly vulnerable in Dorset West.

The Tories have high hopes in a string of marginal Labour seats in outer London, Northamptonshire, and some of the rural areas that Labour picked up in their landslide election victories. They are also aiming to defeat Lib Dems in Eastleigh, Guildford, Ludlow, Romsey and Hereford.

There will be some interesting battles on the margins of the main campaign. Anti-Iraq war and working class champions Respect could make an impact in areas of high immigrant populations, especially in the east London seat of Bethnal Green & Bow where George Galloway is taking on Oona King.

Robert Kilroy-Silk's split from the UK Independence Party means his Veritas will be head-to-head with UKIP for the anti EU vote. Kilroy-Silk himself is standing in the Derbyshire constituency of Erewash.

Although UKIP is adamant it can pick up six seats, including Liberal Democrat-held Torridge & West Devon, where leader Roger Knapman is the candidate, all the indications are that `Europe' is not high on the agenda of most voters and only a handful of candidate are likely to poll even a 1,000 votes.

Opinion polls published yesterday show Michael Howard closing the gap - in one poll, the Tories are 5% ahead based on definite voting intentions. However, because of the way the election boundaries are skewed, the Conservatives have to be ahead by 9% to have an overall parliamentary majority.

And that looks beyond them. Spread betters will be looking at an overall parliamentary Labour majority of between 45 and 100 - somewhere in the middle may not be far off.

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