Prime Minister Gordon Brown will this morning announce a 6 May parliamentary election in the UK, which could bring down the curtain on 13 years of rule by his Labour Party.
Brown will meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace today (6 April) to request a dissolution of parliament, a Labour party source said, a formality which will mark the start of a month-long campaign for one of the most unpredictable elections for almost two decades.
The Conservatives lead Labour in opinion polls but the gap has been narrowing. An ICM poll in today's Guardian newspaper showed Labour only four points behind the Conservatives and on course to remain the largest party, albeit without an overall majority.
Support for the Conservatives is unevenly distributed in the 650 parliamentary constituencies, meaning Labour can win the most seats even if it does not capture the largest share of the vote nationally.
An inconclusive election result is rare and is the nightmare scenario for financial markets, which want a clear outcome and the promise of meaningful action to tackle a budget deficit running at almost 12% of GDP.
Failure by either of the main parties to win a majority could hand a pivotal role to the Liberal Democrats, who will be trying to maintain a bloc of around 60 MPs in parliament.
Economy takes centre stage
How best to run an economy slowly emerging from the worst recession since World War Two is likely to be the central theme in the campaign, entwined with issues such as how best to manage public services in straitened times (EURACTIV 30/03/10).
Labour argues that Brown has steered the country through turbulent economic times and to hand over now to an inexperienced opposition would jeopardise recovery.
"The people of this country have fought too hard to get Britain on the road to recovery to allow anybody to take us back on the road to recession," Brown is expected to say on his return from Buckingham Palace.
The Conservatives, led by former public relations executive David Cameron, have long said they would cut the deficit harder and faster than Labour, but have now promised to exempt most workers from a rise in payroll tax that Labour plans from 2011.
That has won applause from the party's traditional business supporters but Labour has cried foul, saying the Conservatives' plans do not add up.
"We're fighting this election for the Great Ignored. Young, old, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight," Cameron said in a statement, showing how he has tried to make his party more inclusive.
The outgoing parliament, which has served a full five years, has been tarnished by a scandal over lawmakers' expenses that angered Britons. As many as 150 members of parliament are stepping down, many with reputations harmed by the scandal.
All three main parties have suffered and some analysts expect fringe parties and independent candidates to pick up extra votes at the polls.
Adding spice to the campaign will be an innovation in British politics: live television debates between Brown, Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.
(EURACTIV with Reuters.)