It was one of those idiosyncratic ceremonies for which Britain is famous. Shortly before 10 o'clock on Tuesday morning, the royal helicopter landed on the manicured lawns of Buckingham Palace. Queen Elizabeth II stepped out and disappeared inside her London residence. She had interrupted her Easter holiday at Windsor Castle to fulfill one of her main duties as Britain's head of state. A few minutes later, the prime minister's Jaguar arrived from nearby Downing Street.
Behind closed doors, Prime Minister Gordon Brown formally asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament. Then Brown returned to 10 Downing Street and uttered the sentence that the British had been anticipating for over two years.
"I am asking the British people for a clear and straightforward mandate," said Brown, who was flanked by his entire cabinet. He added that he wanted "to continue the urgent and hard work securing the recovery, building our industries for the future, and creating a million skilled jobs over the next five years." The Queen, he said, had "kindly agreed" to his proposal to dissolve parliament and hold general elections on May 6.
Years of Waiting
The British now have certainty after years of waiting. There had already been speculation about the election as early as the autumn of 2007. At that time, Brown, who had recently taken over as prime minister from Tony Blair, had toyed with the idea of getting his own mandate from the British population. But he got cold feet at the last minute, and the election never took place. Since then, Brown has had to live with the reputation of being a non-elected head of government and someone who does not have the confidence to put himself up for election.
But now Brown could not wait any longer. Given that the maximum length of a parliamentary term is five years, Brown would have had to call elections by the beginning of June at the very latest. Brown's announcement means that the election campaign has officially opened. A sense of relief was palpable in the British media. Tabloid The Sun commented that an "exhausted" Brown had finally called elections. Its front page featured a photo of a tired Brown getting into his car after a jog alongside the headline "Phew!"
May 6 had been regarded for months as the most likely election date, and the campaign is already in full swing. Election posters and programs have already been presented, and there have been sentimental television portraits of the leading candidates. Even the first television debate between the candidates for the position of chancellor of the Exchequer -- a British position similar to finance minister -- has already been held.
Britain's 45 million voters are already painfully familiar with the personalities and positions of the two main camps. On the one side is the Labour Party's Gordon Brown, 59, who presents himself as an experienced expert on the economy but who is looking worn out and grim after 13 years in government. On the other side is the Conservatives' baby-faced challenger, 43-year-old David Cameron. He has promoted a message of "change," but his vagueness is dangerously reminiscent of Tony Blair and has therefore aroused suspicions.
On Tuesday, the two rivals tried to underscore their central messages. Even before Brown had announced the dissolution of Parliament, his opponent had already appeared before the cameras and spoke of the "most important general election for a generation." Speaking to Conservative activists on the bank of the Thames, Cameron said that voting Conservative was "about voting for hope, voting for optimism, voting for change." The Tories, he said, were "a modern Conservative alternative" to the worn-out Labour Party. "I believe there can be real change if we win this election, because our plans are going to be exciting, our plans are going to be radical," he added.
Brown was equally to the point with his remarks. He was from "an ordinary middle class family in an ordinary town," he said, in a transparent swipe at Cameron, who comes from a wealthy banking family and went to the elite private school Eton and Oxford University. Brown also repeated his mantra that the election involves voters choosing which direction they want the country to go in. "Our economy is now moving forward," he said, adding that the Tories' proposed spending cuts could put "recovery at risk."
Both candidates then headed deep into enemy territory. Cameron went to shake hands in the old Labour strongholds of Birmingham and Leeds, while Brown traveled to the prosperous southeast of England. All the major parties are focusing their campaigns on the constituencies where close results are expected. These seats are sure to be decisive at the end of the day.
The latest surveys are very mixed, a sign of how open the race is. A YouGov poll for The Sun put the Tories at 41 percent with a 10-point lead over Labour. An ICM poll for the Guardian, however, identified a lead of just 4 percent. Nevertheless, very few people are expecting a Labour victory. A hung parliament is more likely, which could lead to a minority government. In this case, Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, which are currently at around 20 percent in the polls, could play kingmaker, supporting either Brown or Cameron.
In the 30 days until the election, Brown will travel across Britain by train in what is supposed to be understood as a commitment to public infrastructure. Cameron, however, will be flying to his campaign appearances in a small plane, as Blair once did.
There are several points in the run-up to May 6 where the campaign could take a decisive turn. Three 90-minute televised debates between the three leading candidates -- Brown, Cameron and the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg -- are scheduled. In the second half of April, important economic data will also be published, regarding unemployment and economic growth in the first quarter of 2010.
Positive data could help Brown in his bid to present himself as a competent pair of hands at the helm of the British economy. Cameron, for his part, is trying to convince voters that Brown is responsible for leading the country into the crisis. He is struggling to really get his message across, however. Given Labour's long reign in power, Brown's unpopularity and the recession, it is surprising that the opposition is not further ahead.
Whatever happens, the election will represent a break with the past, no matter if Cameron manages to bring the Conservatives back to power after 13 years in opposition or if Labour succeeds in winning an historic fourth term. Many members of parliament are not standing for re-election as a result of the expenses scandal of 2009. It will therefore be a genuinely new parliament that meets for the first time on May 18.