Tony Blair on Tuesday launched what is set to be the most keenly contested British general election since 1992, urging Labour to fight for “every vote in every seat” against a resurgent Conservative party.
After formally asking the Queen to dissolve parliament and call an election for May 5, the prime minister sought to galvanise his party's many disgruntled supporters by insisting the country faced a “fundamental choice” between competing Labour and Conservative visions on the economy and public services.
Mr Blair, who is fighting his third and last general election as Labour leader and defending a Commons majority of 161, immediately underscored his determination to fight for the largest possible margin of victory.
After announcing the election date, he flew to South Dorset, the number one target seat that the Conservatives seek to take off Labour. There, he told party supporters that while “tremendous progress” has been made in the health service “we still have to do a lot more”.
Mr Blair said last year that he would stand down at some stage in his third term and therefore needs to secure the largest possible majority to give his premiership momentum. But although Labour is widely expected to win the election, predictions over Labour's potential majority vary widely.
A mixture of factors above all lingering uncertainty that Labour voters who were angered by the Iraq war will come out and vote makes this the most unpredictable British election in 13 years.
Mr Blair will on Wednesday seek to entrench the argument that voters face a clear choice between Labour and the Conservatives on the economy and public services when he holds the first joint press conference of the campaign with Gordon Brown, the chancellor.
But Michael Howard, whose Conservative party has been buoyed by favourable opinion polls this week, insisted on Wednesday that voters faced a different choice in 29 days' time.
Mocking the “smirking politics” of the prime minister, Mr Howard said the electorate “can either reward Mr Blair for eight years of broken promises and vote for another five years of talk. Or they can vote Conservative, to support a party that's taken a stand and is committed to action on the issues that matter to hard-working Britons.”
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader whose party firmly opposed the Iraq invasion, told supporters the election was “much more fluid” than ever before and that his party was determined to shun the “negative campaigning” of his rivals.
The joint press conference on Wednesday between the prime minister and chancellor is a clear sign of the extent to which Mr Brown is now at the heart of Labour's campaign.
Although the two men have appeared at party events most recently a poster launch claiming the Tories will cut spending by £35bn Wednesday's sees the first important joint press conference by both men since the Treasury's decision on UK entry to the euro in June 2003.
While Labour wants to put the focus of the campaign on its economic record, Mr Howard on Wednesday said he would make no apologies for addressing “difficult issues” such as asylum and “travellers who stick two fingers up to the law”.
Mr Howard said: “I am not prepared to appease special interest groups because I believe passionately in fair play. We are all Britons and we should all have to play by the same rules.”
But some senior politicians fear the election will descend into a series of low blows between the two main parties. Writing in the Financial Times on Wednesday Stephen Byers, the former Labour cabinet minister, says: “A Punch and Judy election campaign simply will not be tolerated by an electorate whose patience of such conduct is coming to an end.”
Get alerts on World when a new story is published