RAY SUAREZ: President Bush's strongest ally faces a test at the ballot box.
London's Big Ben chimed 7:00 this morning, signaling the official start to voting across Britain.
It was a family affair in northern England. British Prime Minister Tony Blair went to the polls in one last bid to lead his Labour Party to victory. Joined by his wife and two eldest sons -- both of them first time voters -- Blair set out to achieve a third term in office. It would be a first for a Labour Party prime minister.
Polls show Labour in the lead. Can the party hold its huge 161-seat majority in the House of Commons? Leading the opposition Conservative party is Michael Howard. He has campaigned on the theme that Mr. Blair is a liar.
MICHAEL HOWARD: If you can't trust Mr. Blair on the decision to take the country to war, the most important decision a prime minister can take, how can you trust Mr. Blair on anything else ever again?
RAY SUAREZ: Many Britons, including Labour voters, have echoed the charges that Blair can't be trusted; that he misled the country into the Iraq War in 2003. But the prime minister said he's not a liar.
TONY BLAIR: Well, I've never told a lie, no. I don't intend to go telling lies to people. I did not lie over Iraq. I've made that very clear to people.
RAY SUAREZ: Charles Kennedy leads the number-three party in the House of Commons, the Liberal Democrats. Against the Iraq war from the beginning, he wants disenchanted Labour voters to switch to his party.
CHARLES KENNEDY: Vote for us if, like us, you say never again to an episode like Iraq.
RAY SUAREZ: Turnout, especially among traditional Labour supporters, could be crucial. At the last general election in 2001, 59 percent came to the polls, high by American standards, but the lowest in Britain since 1918, right after World War I.
For more now on today's election I'm joined by Dan Balz, political reporter for the Washington Post. Dan, welcome.
The polls have been closed just a short time. Has an outline of a result begun to emerge?
DAN BALZ: Well, the first exit poll projections have been issued, Ray. They suggest two things: One, that Tony Blair will win a third term for the Labour Party, which would be historic, as was mentioned in the piece. But the projections are for a significantly reduced majority. Under 100, the first polls suggest it could be 66 seats.
We in the United States know that we have to be wary of exit polls, particularly the first ones that come out. So I don't think we want to project too far ahead, but it looks as though like this could be a more disappointing night for Labour than it appeared to be a couple days ago.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, during this final week of the campaign, people were talking about just how big that majority would be. What's the significance attached to it if Labour will continue to have working control of the House of Commons?
DAN BALZ: Well, a couple of things. They would have working control with 66- or 70-vote majority, but there are back benchers in the Labour Party who have been very much against Prime Minister Blair on the war and who might rebel. As you know, the prime minister has already said that he's not going to stand for a fourth term in office.
Standing in the wings is Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer. There's some feeling here that if the majority that they end up with tonight is smaller than anticipated, that there will be more pressure for Prime Minister Blair to step down earlier rather than later in the third term.
RAY SUAREZ: And stepping down, there doesn't have to be to be another election, right? He can, in effect, hand off power to the leader of whoever the Labour party chooses?
DAN BALZ: That's exactly right. He can step down at any time and with the majority they have, they would elect a new leader and the new leader would become the prime minister. He has said he wants to serve a full third term, indicating that he would like to serve actually longer than Margaret Thatcher did, which was well more than 11 years. He would have to serve three-plus years to do that. Depending on the size of the majority, he could be seen within his own party as a lame duck.
As you know, Ray, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with him within his own party. That's the problem he's been facing in this election, is to try to stir up the Labour loyalists to continue to stand by him in order to do some things particularly on the domestic side that he has not been able to get done in the first eight years.
So he wants more time, in essence, to create a legacy that goes beyond the Iraq war. And we won't know obviously until we actually see real results, how much of a working majority he's going to have. They have said here before today that if he came out of this with a majority of over 100 seats, he might have a pretty free hand for a while. So, we're in kind of a nether-nether world here at this hour of the night as we wait the results of the actual constituencies or districts.
RAY SUAREZ: In the final days of the active campaign and as the polls opened this morning, what were the big issues, the dominating issues?
DAN BALZ: Well, obviously as we suggested, Iraq is a very big issue, particularly within the Labour Party. But the economy is an important issue as well, and one that has worked very well for Mr. Blair. He and Gordon Brown have managed to keep the economy on even keel for eight years with low unemployment, low inflation. And there are a lot of people in Britain who feel that they're better off today than they were eight years ago, and they're not necessarily inclined to want to vote out the Labour government.
Another issue that is important always here is the national health service. The Labour government has moved to increase spending significantly on the health service here over the last four years. It is beginning to show some results, but there are still complaints about it. Education obviously is an issue, and another big issue is immigration. The Conservative Party, which has an advantage on that issue, has struck very hard on it, arguing that the Labour government has allowed the borders to become out of control. Tony Blair gave a speech a couple weeks ago hitting back saying that they were beginning to move, they were taking action. But that has certainly caused Labour a problem in this election.
RAY SUAREZ: You mention that the exit polls have shown a reduced majority for Labour. But we don't know yet who the prime beneficiary of those lost seats has been, right?
DAN BALZ: No, we don't. There are some suggestions that it is likely to be the Conservative Party, but if you look at the projected national share of their vote, they are still within the 33 percent range, which is about where they have been the last couple of elections.
This is a party that basically ruled Great Britain for the last century. They were the dominant party. They got walloped in 1997; they had a very bad election again in 2001. They are projected to pick up seats. But if they are still in the low 30s in terms of their percentage, there will be people questioning whether they have really rebounded as much as they had hoped.
RAY SUAREZ: Dan Balz of the Washington Post, thanks for being with us.
DAN BALZ: Thank you, Ray.