Major Calls for a Vote

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LONDON: As his Conservative Party teeters on the brink of defeat for the first time in 18 years, Prime Minister John Major called a national election for May 1. Deprived of its majority in parliament and assailed on all fronts, from health care to European Union policy, the Conservatives trail the Labour Party by as much as 27 percentage points in the polls. Labour, the party once known for its nationalizing fervor and close union ties, now styles itself as a more progressive version of the Conservative Party. Like Major, Labour leader Tony Blair promises to be tough on crime, inflation and government spending, while pledging to hold the line on curbs introduced by the Conservatives to limit union power. Unlike the Prime Minister, he is not plagued by a popular image that depicts him as a weak-kneed, befuddled leader whose ideas are nothing more than stale leftovers from the Thatcher era. On the "progressive" front, Blair's party pledges to abolish the voting powers of the hereditary aristocrats who sit in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of parliament. The six-week campaign is scheduled to kick off on April 8, when parliament will be officially dissolved and will feature a first for the country: Blair and Major have agreed, in principle, to hold an American-style televised debate. As for Major, he remains at least in public sanguine about his party's chances. "I think we'll win this election," he told reporters outside 10 Downing St.