Election fever is rising in Britain. Just about everyone assumes that Prime Minister Tony Blair will call for a national vote this spring, probably on May 5 to coincide with already scheduled local elections. Yet many think the player to watch in the campaign will be neither Blair, whose third straight win looks likely, nor Conservative boss Michael Howard. Instead, pollsters and voters are focusing on a politician largely unknown outside Britain -- Charles Kennedy, leader of the third-party Liberal Democrats.
Kennedy won't knock out Blair, but he may well make things uncomfortable for Howard. Since assuming the top party post in 1999, Kennedy has put the Liberal Democrats in their strongest position ever, with 55 seats in the House of Commons vs. 407 for Labour and 163 for the Conservatives. The Lib Dems look likely to gain from 15 to 40 more seats in May, says Andrew Cooper, managing director of pollster Populus. "The simple story is a decisive shift to the Lib Dems," Cooper says.
The rise of the Lib Dems could rattle the landscape of British politics. If this slightly left-of-center, pro-Europe party does well, while the Tories improve only modestly or lose ground, then Kennedy's troops would be in a position to challenge the Conservatives as the main opposition party in future elections. Cooper says such a result would mean the "institutionalization of more of a three-party system than we are used to."
The Conservatives would be the big losers in the short term. In fact, some analysts think the Tories could be on a path to self-destruction. Peter Kellner, chairman of pollsters YouGov, sees the possibility of an unbridgeable gulf opening between Tories "who are basically moderate and pro-European in outlook and those who are more nationalistic, right-wing, and anti-Europe." Just as the Social Democrats broke away from an unelectable Labour in the 1980s, so these Tory moderates could leave their party, perhaps joining the Lib Dems.
Kennedy, 45, is pursuing what analysts call a "decapitation" strategy against key Tories. Pollsters give the Lib Dems a good shot at toppling Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Oliver Letwin, Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, and former Tory Chairman Theresa May, who all squeaked by in 2001 with narrow majorities. Even Howard could fall to a Lib Dem surge.
Kennedy's party has made greater inroads in Tory areas such as Southwest En- gland than in Labour strongholds such as the Midlands. The Lib Dems appeal to well-educated professionals and women, voters the Tories would like in their camp. But recently the Lib Dems snatched two Labour seats in by-elections in constituencies with big Muslim populations. Kennedy's opposition to British involvement in the Iraq war was key. He has also gained support with his stand against Labour's higher university tuition fees. And he opposes Blair's push to require all Britons to carry identity cards. On the economic front, the Lib Dems are the only party that clearly favors joining the European single currency.
Chris Rennard, the Lib Dem chief executive, says the party's goal is "to gain enough seats from both Labour and the Conservatives to demonstrate that we are a more effective opposition than the Conservatives and to show we are eventually a more likely alternative government to Labour." A long shot? Perhaps. But Kennedy is shrewd and young enough to be a player for many more years.
By Stanley Reed in London
Edited by Rose Brady