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Day One: The memories flood back

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley
CNN's Robin Oakley
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British Prime Minister Tony Blair calls May 5 election.
Robin Oakley
UK election

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Here we go again. In Downing Street amid the popping flashbulbs as Tony Blair sets off for Buckingham Palace to ask the queen to dissolve Parliament and hold an election on 05/05/05.

Memories of past elections flood back. Margaret Thatcher cradling a calf for a photo opportunity and her husband Denis drily observing "Keep that up for much longer and we'll have a dead calf on our hands."

Harold Wilson rhetorically asking an election rally "Why do I say the future of the Royal Naval Dockyards is safe?" and a voice from the crowd yelling before he could answer himself: "Because you are in Chatham" -- the home of one of Britain's dockyards!

Then there was Conservative leader Edward Heath in 1970 being told that somebody had thrown an egg at Wilson. He commented: "Since the prime minister's movements are being kept secret for security reasons that just shows how desperate the British people are -- they are carrying eggs in their pockets merely on the off-chance of encountering the prime minister." It was probably Heath's first and last recorded joke.

Day One has set the tone for this election. Tony Blair emphasized in Downing Street on his return from the palace that there was a "Big Choice" facing the British people.

Of course he did. The one thing he doesn't want is for this election to become a referendum on him and his government. He wants to emphasize the contrast between him and Michael Howard. Labour's strategists are hoping that Michael Howard's role in the Thatcher and Major governments will count against him -- hence their rather ungrammatical slogan "Forward with Labour -- not back."

Howard has clearly been listening to the focus groups. It seems that a number of people are irritated by Tony Blair's sometimes over-ready smile. So the Conservative leader opened his campaign by effectively offering to "wipe the smile off Tony Blair's face." He talked of "smirking politics" and added: "Mr Blair is already secretly grinning about the prospect of his third victory. But you don't have to settle for that."

Charles Kennedy, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, hopes to stir a "plague on both your houses" mood and insisted: "I'm not going to spend these next few weeks, precious weeks of democratic electioneering, going around talking Britain down. I'm going to be addressing people's hopes, not playing on people's fears."

The Liberal Democrats usually gain support during an election campaign because they get a degree of attention the media denies them at other times. But getting across their different policies sharply enough will be their problem. The former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown told me once "I'd sell my grandmother for a bit of definition."

Anyway, we are in for the sharpest, most strongly contested election since 1992. And there is nothing quite so enjoyable for political groupies like me as the naked contest for power. It may say something about the respective styles that while Americans "run for office," Britons "stand for parliament." But this campaign won't lack vigor or excitement.

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