Britain will go to the polls on May 6, it was officially announced on Tuesday, in what is set to be the most uncertain and closely fought general election for a generation with opinion surveys pointing to a hung Parliament, a rare outcome.

For the first time in more than 30 years, the Liberal Democrats — more used to hovering around the margins of mainstream British politics — are likely to get a chance to play the kingmaker and determine the shape of a future government.

A new feature of the campaign this time will be three American-style television debates with Prime Minister Gordon Brown going head-to-head with his rivals — Tory leader David Cameron and Lib Dems' Nick Clegg, both of whom are more media savvy and articulate than him.

Mr. Brown announced the polling date after a 20-minute meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace to seek the dissolution of Parliament. The announcement held no surprises and, indeed, Mr. Brown himself remarked that it had been the “least well-kept secret of recent years” with an election campaign already in full swing for several weeks.

Normally, British Prime Ministers call the election a year ahead of their full five-year term but Mr. Brown, who took over from Tony Blair in 2007 in what was effectively a “palace coup'' and has been struggling in opinion polls, has gone to the wire hoping for the voters' mood to improve. The gamble appears to have paid off as in recent weeks Labour has caught up with Tories in opinion polls though the latter still have an edge.

Economy will dominate the campaign with the three parties claiming to have the best plans to cut the massive £167-billion budget deficit, accelerate the economic recovery and deliver improved frontline public services. Other issues include public services and immigration with the far right British National Party making a bold bid to capture its first Parliament seat.

Speaking on the steps of No 10, after announcing the election date, Mr. Brown said he would seek a “clear'' mandate for policies that he claimed had put Britain on path to economic recovery. He warned voters not to put it “at risk'' by voting Tories.

Mr. Cameron promised “hope, optimism and change'', and Mr Clegg “real change'' as they hit the campaign trail.

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