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Monday, 8 January, 2001, 13:18 GMT
All eyes on election day
TV presenter David Frost and Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair stokes election fever with Frost interview
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

If there is one thing just about everybody in Westminster is agreed on, it is that the next general election will be on 3 May this year.

Needless to say, no one really knows and no one in a position to know has said or done anything to confirm the suspicions.

And it is quite possible that the prime minister has not finally made up his mind.

But as each day passes there appears to be more evidence that Mr Blair and the Labour party is already in campaigning mode.

As long ago as the last budget, there were claims that Gordon Brown had produced a package for the next election.

The Queen's speech last month, which outlined a thin programme of legislation, was also seen as a clear indication that ministers were looking forward to a short session of parliament.

And the Chancellor's "giveaway" pre-budget report before that had already been written up as further confirmation that May was the favoured date.

Key issues

But things have escalated since then. The party funding row is seen as a clear sign that Labour is frantically seeking cash for the looming campaign.

Prime Minister Tony Blair at Downing Street
Blair keeping date to himself
The prime minister, in a weekend television interview, spoke openly about the economy being the key battleground of the campaign and speculated about how the battle would go.

And on Tuesday he makes a speech in Bristol which will again map out what he sees as the key election issues - the economy, investment in public services, the hard decisions finally paying off and so on.

All this seems to suggest that the next general election is indeed just around the corner. But why 3 May in particular - with still another full year to go before the poll has to be held?

The first thing any prime minister wants to do is chose the date of a general election himself or herself.

The longer it is delayed, the less room for manoeuvre there is, particularly if unforeseen events suddenly throw a spanner into the government's works.

Four years is generally seen as a reasonably time at which to go. It cannot be described as a cut and run election and it allows a government to have pushed through a large proportion of its last election manifesto. It was also good enough for Margaret Thatcher.

Holiday period

May is good because it allows one more pre-election budget and may even see the start of summer, producing a bit of the feelgood factor amongst voters.

Later than May and the country is into the long holiday period when voters are away.

Autumn and winter are universally viewed as bad seasons for encouraging voters to get excited about politics, let alone election campaigns.

Tory leader William Hague
Hague listening for a date
Mr Blair has also seen his poll ratings recovering after a rocky 2000 and may feel the Tories are at a low point and does not want to give them any time to fight back.

The economy is undoubtedly holding steady but there are some fears that a downturn in the US could have a knock-on effect in Britain later in the year and damage the government's standing.

Thursday 3 May is also local council elections day. Labour voters traditionally use such polls to give the government a kicking.

So Mr Blair may not want to enter a later election campaign with a set of bad local polls hanging over him.

The speculation is that, if 3 May really is the day, then the prime minister could use Labour's spring conference in Glasgow between 16 and 18 February as a launch pad for the campaign.

If he wanted a short "official" campaign, he could wait until half way through April, just before Easter, before naming the day

None of the evidence and speculation is conclusive, of course, but as each day dawns there seems less reason for Tony Blair to delay.

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See also:

07 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Blair 'proud' of Labour donors
07 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Blair: Economy key to election
05 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Labour 'failing' on anti-crime pledge
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