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Tuesday, 1 May, 2001, 19:03 GMT 20:03 UK
Europe becomes election battle

By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

William Hague's hopes of seeing Europe as a key issue in the general election campaign have received a surprise boost.

A new poll for BBC News Online suggests the issue is now second only to health as the one voters see as the most important facing them at the poll.

It is closely followed by tax and education, with crime surprisingly low in sixth place.

Tory leader William Hague
Hague's pound campaign may pay off
The poll also suggests that the Tories have regained their position as the party most likely to protect the UK's interests in the EU. A similar poll last month showed Labour just in the lead.

If the survey reflects a genuine trend, rather than a blip, it suggests that Mr Hague's anti-single currency campaign is starting to pay dividends.

He is eager to turn the general election into a virtual referendum on Britain's entry into the single currency and has embarked on a series of "Keep the Pound" rallies across the country.

But until now Europe and the issue of the single currency has always been regarded as relatively low on voters' list of priorities.

Education, health and crime have traditionally been seen as the top issues.

Heart of campaign

But according to the ICM poll, 21% now put health at the top of their list with Europe second on 17%, taxation third on 16% and education fourth on 15%.

The suggestion is that Europe is now, in effect, running in joint second place with tax and education.

Next comes the environment on 9%, crime on 8%, asylum and immigration - another issue Mr Hague would like to put at the heart of his campaign - on just 5% and transport on 1%.

Another piece of good news for Mr Hague, however, is that the figures suggest the two parties are virtually neck and neck on crime, with the Tories squeaking a 1% lead over Labour, with 31% support.

That is also a traditional lead that the party had recently conceded to Labour.

Labour lead

The good news for Mr Hague is somewhat overshadowed by results showing Labour clearly in the lead as the party most trusted to run the NHS, education, the economy and transport - although Labour has slightly lost ground on the first two.

But the opposition leader will be able to take some relief from the fact that there are now some signs that the areas he considers important may yet be coming his way.

The poll also suggests that voters overwhelmingly want the prime minister to press ahead with the general election on 7 June.

Just 29% want a delay while 71% want the poll to go ahead as is planned - probably.

That suggests there would be a great danger in Mr Blair delaying further and risking a public backlash. Few believe that is likely, however.

There is some further welcome news for the prime minister with a massive 87% insisting they were either quite likely, very likely or absolutely certain to vote on polling day.

One of the government's great worries has been that voter apathy would lead to an historically low turnout which, in turn, could hit its showing.

ICM polled 1,033 adults in England, Scotland and Wales between Tuesday, 24 April and Tuesday, 1 May - 270 of them by telephone and the rest by email.

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