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WORLD


ARKIB : 01/11/2004

Blair ``February election'' report played down

LONDON Oct 31 - Tony Blair's office and party played down newspaper reports on Sunday that the prime minister may call an early British election in February.

Most political commentators expect Blair to seek a new mandate in May 2005. To go to the polls earlier, after well under four years since the last election, would lead to charges that the prime minister was running scared.

``This is idle speculation,'' a spokesman in Blair's Downing Street office said of the reports that the prime minister would try to capitalise on successful Iraqi elections in late January.

British governments can serve terms of up to five years. Blair has said he wants to serve a full third term but not a fourth.

The Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times newspapers said Blair's election supremo, Alan Milburn, had ordered an advertising blitz in the new year, a move that does not necessarily show a winter election will take place.

The strategy of hoping for a ``Baghdad bounce'' would also rely on Iraqi elections going smoothly, without much bloodshed, something analysts say is far from assured.

A Labour party official said he had heard nothing to suggest a February poll was likely.

An opinion poll for the Independent on Sunday newspaper put support Blair's Labour party at 39 percent, six points ahead of the main Conservative opposition, and on course for a comfortable third successive election win.

That could foster the argument among Blair's advisers of why wait? But the portents for February polls are not good.

The only February election held in recent times was called by Edward Heath in 1974. He lost.

Further back, Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee's majority was all but wiped out in February 1950. He lost power the following year.

British political orthodoxy has it that turnout slumps at polls held during cold, inclement weather, something which in the past would have heavily hit the Labour vote.

Conservative chairman Liam Fox said: ``The public will be rightly suspicious of a government with a huge parliamentary majority which wants to hold an election before four years.''

``It looks as if Tony Blair wants to cut and run before voters realise he is never going to deliver on health, education and crime,'' he added. - Reuters

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