Election date: 05.05.05

At last Blair names the date. Now Britain faces a 'big choice'
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair set out the alternatives facing Britain as he launched his attempt to win an unprecedented third term for Labour at the general election announced for 5 May.

Tony Blair set out the alternatives facing Britain as he launched his attempt to win an unprecedented third term for Labour at the general election announced for 5 May.

Facing an uphill struggle to persuade disaffected Labour supporters to back the party, the Prime Minister struck a serious and sombre tone as he outlined his "driving mission" - to entrench economic stability and allow everyone to reach their full potential whatever their class, background, race, colour or religion.

Mr Blair warned Labour MPs at Westminster that the election would be "tough" and, in a reference to Iraq, admitted there had been "difficult times" in the past four years. He said Labour had to fight for a third term not just for its own sake, but it also had to fight for its values. He told MPs to be proud of Labour's record.

Today Mr Blair will try to make the economy the most important dividing line between the two main parties. At a joint press conference with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, he will accuse the Tories of avoiding debate on the issue. He told aides yesterday: "The Tories used to run on the economy; now they run away from it." The Prime Minister offered voters a choice between the economic stability and investment in public services enjoyed since 1997 and a return to the "economic risks and the failing public services" of previous Tory governments. "So it is a big choice. It is a big decision. The British people are the boss and they are the ones who will make it," he said.

This evening a meeting of Labour's national executive committee, the Cabinet and Labour MPs' representatives will approve a party manifesto that will contrast Labour's "opportunity for all" message with Tory plans to help "a privileged few". The manifesto will promise radical reforms including an extension of "parent power" in schools and greater use of the private sector by the health service. But the document will try to reassure Mr Blair's critics by stressing that NHS treatment would be on the basis of need and remain free. He wants to avoid a repeat of the internal party row which followed the launch of the 2001 election manifesto over the role of the private sector in delivering public services.

Against a backdrop of a falling Labour lead in opinion polls, Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, reflected the party's jitters that a low turnout among Labour supporters angry about Iraq could allow the Tories to pull off a surprise victory. Mr Hain told the ITV News channel: "Both staying at home or voting Liberal Democrat or for some other minority party is effectively taking a vote away from Labour's ability to beat the Conservatives and will let them in, even if that is not what you intend. And if enough of that happens in all the key Labour-Conservative battlegrounds in over 100 seats over the country, then Michael Howard will indeed propel into government."

Before the Prime Minister had confirmed the election date after an audience with the Queen, the Liberal Democrat and Tory leaders jumped the gun by launching their own campaigns - and both made Mr Blair's "trust problem" a big issue. Mr Howard vowed that he would not be diverted from raising "difficult issues" such as asylum and Gypsies. He sought to capitalise on disenchantment with Mr Blair mocking his "smirking politics" and saying: "Mr Blair is already secretly grinning about the prospect of his third victory."

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, who vowed to fight a positive campaign, said: "People feel badly let down by Labour. They're never going to regain the trust of the British people. Frankly, they don't deserve to. When you break your promises over tax increases and imposing student top-up fees, people don't forget. Nor will people forgive the fact that Tony Blair lined up with George Bush and we were misled into the Iraq war."

The leaders of the three main parties will all appear on the same edition of BBC's Question Time. They will be questioned separately in consecutive appearances in the 90-minute special on 28 April.

A Labour parliamentary candidate announcedthat he had defected to the Liberal Democrats. Stephen Wilkinson, who was Labour's candidate for Ribble Valley and a member of Lancashire County Council, attacked the war in Iraq, and added: "I feel angry that Labour have become increasingly authoritarian and failed to safeguard civil liberties."