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EDITIONS
Friday, 1 December, 2000, 13:09 GMT
Why May?
It is either the worst kept secret in the country or the only logical option open to the government.

Just about everyone believes Prime Minister Tony Blair has pencilled in 3 May 2001 as the date of the next general election. Why are they so sure?

A May poll would come just four years after New Labour's 1997 victory and a full 12 months before a general election is required.

Harold Macmillan: The late ex-premier warned that "events" decide the fate of governments
But if he opts to go the country next spring, Mr Blair will simply be honouring what has almost become a tradition of prime ministers deciding against completing five-year terms of office.

In recent times, only John Major went the entire five-year span between one election and the next - and by then he had already lost his parliamentary majority.

In contrast, his predecessor Margaret Thatcher consistently called an election every four years.

'Events'

In her memoirs she wrote that hanging on to the end of term can attract the charge of "clinging to power" or of "being afraid of testing your mandate".

But another key reason for going early is the fear all politicians have of what Harold Macmillan termed "Events, dear boy, events". In other words, those unpredictable happenings that strike out of the blue to change a governing party's position for the worse.

September's fuel crisis, which lifted the Tories ahead - albeit briefly - of Labour in the opinion polls, is a perfect example. Who saw that one coming? Certainly no one at Number 10 or Labour's Millbank Tower headquarters.

Thatcher consistently called elections every four years
Margaret Thatcher: She didn't like to leave it too long
So one of the unwritten rules prime ministers must bear in mind is that when you're ahead, things can, to coin a phrase, only get worse.

And if they're bad already, they can always become plain disastrous. Take the example of the last Labour prime minister, Jim Callaghan.

He ignored advice to get it over and done with early in autumn 1978 and instead went to the country the following spring - five years after Labour had narrowly defeated Edward Heath's Tories.

Chief among the "Events" that saw to his re-election hopes was the winter of discontent which broke out soon after, and saw the country crippled by public sector strikes. Margaret Thatcher beat him, so beginning 18 years of Conservative rule.

Turn-outs and budgets

Another factor in favour of 3 May is that local councils are also up for election in England.

The local authorities up for grabs this time round are in largely Conservative strongholds where Labour has little chance of gaining ground. Mr Blair will not want to be left having to explain a "poor" showing and facing unfavourable headlines with the big one still to come.

Holding both polls on the same day would also boost the traditionally low turn-out for council elections.

Jim Callaghan: Putting it off contributed to defeat
Also vital to consider, a 3 May poll would also come hard on the heels of a spring budget. The timing would allow for any tax cuts to make their way visibly to voters' pay packets before polling day.

Expectations

Also to be weighed is the self-fulfilling nature of political expectations.

Pundits and politicians alike are putting their money on May. War rooms are being set up, party command centres are taking on campaign staff and the political hackery is girding its loins.

Before too long, deciding not to go in May could be seen as a U-turn rather than a confident choice - and the old Thatcher charge of "running scared" would be levelled.

In the end, of course, it is Mr Blair's call and we will not know for sure until he visits the Queen to ask for Parliament to be dissolved.

Come the day, observers also expect a short battle. The 1997 election campaign was one of the longest - and, according to widespread opinion, the most boring - in Westminster memory.

If Labour is still ahead in the polls, neither will it want to give the opposition any more time than necessary to claw back some of that lead.

By tradition there are usually at least 16 working days between the proclamation of a general election and the day of voting itself.

On this basis, if it were indeed to be 3 May the election would have to be called by 5 April.

You have been warned.


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