Britain in election mood, but no date set yet

AP News
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Posted: Jan 04, 2010 7:14 AM

No date has been set, but campaigning has begun in Britain's 2010 national election.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown and main opposition leader David Cameron were both making campaign-style announcements on education and health Monday, as they appeal to recession-weary voters to back them in an election that must be held by June.

Both Brown's Labour Party, which has been in power for 13 years, and Cameron's Conservatives are promising to maintain public services while slashing a ballooning budget deficit and leading Britain out of its deepest economic downturn since World War II.

Britain was the only major economy still in recession in the third quarter of 2009, though modest growth is forecast this year.

Brown's government argues that the need to support economic recovery outweighs the immediate desire to cut the deficit, while the Conservatives say public spending cuts are needed now to prevent long-term damage to the economy. Tory leaders have said they will present an emergency budget within 50 days of coming to power, if they win the election.

Treasury chief Alistair Darling said Monday that Conservative plans equated to spending commitments of 45 billion pounds ($72 billion), only a quarter of which could be backed up by the party's figures.

"This leaves them with a credibility gap of 34 billion pounds," Darling said. "It's now for them to say when and how they'll be paid for, or come clean and withdraw them."

The International Monetary Fund expects the deficit to peak next year at 13.2 percent of gross domestic product, the highest level in the Group of 20 leading industrialized and emerging nations.

Under Britain's parliamentary system, election dates are not fixed. A vote can be called at the prime minister's discretion but must be held at least once every five years. Official election campaigns last only a few weeks, but unofficial campaigning can drag on for months.

Speculation has swirled about an election date in February or March, but Brown suggested Sunday that he will likely wait until later, probably May. Brown said he expected his government to present a national budget in the spring, before an election.

Brown has never fought an election as prime minister. The former Treasury chief took over the top job in 2007 when predecessor Tony Blair stepped down midway through his third term in office.

Brown and Cameron have both begun making overtures to the Liberal Democrats _ the centrist third party that could be a kingmaker in the next Parliament.

Opinion polls give the Conservatives a big lead over Labour, which has governed Britain since 1997. But the figures suggest an election could produce a hung Parliament, with neither Labour nor the Conservatives holding an outright majority of seats. That would force them to seek support from smaller parties.

Brown said Sunday there was "an agreement of ideas" between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who currently hold 63 of 646 House of Commons seats.

Cameron said last week that his party's differences with the Lib Dems had recently become less significant.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has refused to rule out a coalition with either party.