London (CNSNews.com) - British voters went to the polls Thursday for parliamentary elections widely expected to return Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party to power despite a negatively charged campaign and heavy criticism surrounding Blair's conduct towards war in Iraq.
If Blair is returned to power, he will be the first prime minister to win three consecutive terms since Conservative Margaret Thatcher.
The prime minister has pledged to serve the whole term rather than step aside for another party leader, as Thatcher did in 1990. Parliamentary terms last up to five years under British law.
The latest opinion polls show Blair with a lead of anywhere between three to six points over the second-place Conservative Party. Given the more effective spread of Labor Party voters across the country, analysts predict Conservatives would not only have to win the vote but actually outpoll Labor by several points in order to have any chance of winning a majority of parliamentary seats.
Blair and his supporters have used the month-long campaign to focus on domestic issues, including the stable British economy, schools and improvements to the country's nationalized health service. But his campaign was hit by late allegations that he misrepresented legal advice that was given to him by the country's top lawyer on the eve of war against Iraq.
The Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard, has consistently called Blair's credibility into doubt. Although he voted in favor of the war and said he still favored the action to remove Saddam Hussein, Howard has contended that Blair lied about whether Attorney General Lord Goldsmith gave the green light for military action.
Howard's allegations have formed the basis of a negative and at times personal campaign against the prime minister. One Conservative campaign billboard unveiled in recent days showed a stark black-and white picture of Blair and read: "If he's prepared to lie to take us to war, he's prepared to lie to win an election."
The attacks by Howard and by the anti-war Liberal Democrats -- currently in third place in terms of popular vote and parliamentary seats -- forced Blair last week to publish for the first time the legal advice he was given in March 2003.
The advice reflected the attorney general's concerns about the legality of the war and the possibility that British troops or government officials could be brought in front of tribunals such as the International Criminal Court. But the Attorney General eventually concluded that a case could be made for the legality of the war.
On Wednesday, the last full day of campaigning, the three main parties attempted to energize their bases.
Blair expressed concern that poor turnout or Labor defectors to the Liberal Democrats could allow Howard into power.
"If people opt out and they end up with a Conservative member of parliament, then all the things that people want to continue are put at risk. The choice is fundamental," Blair told reporters during his final news briefing.
The Conservative leader tried to steer away from his party's more negative messages in the final days, repeating his pledges to boost police numbers and crack down on misbehavior in schools.
"The British people can vote for things to stay as they are, or they can vote for positive change. If they vote for positive change, on Friday the country will wake up to a brighter, better future," Howard said.
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, boosted by polls showing his party could get their best election result ever with up to a quarter of the vote, predicted that his party would siphon off voters disillusioned with Blair and doubtful that the Conservatives could win. He attacked Blair's assertion that Liberal voters would shift the balance of power to the Conservatives.
"What I think we are seeing is support for the Conservatives disappearing like snow off a dike, support for us coming up and Labor very badly rattled by the Lib Dem challenge in the closing stages," he said. "It is a great optimistic feeling."
As is usual during British campaigns, gambling firms are offering customers an array of bets on the final outcome, and all agree that Labor will be hard to beat. Bookmakers Ladbrokes have set Labor as a 1 to 33 favorite, with the Conservatives at 10 to 1 and the Liberal Democrats a 150 to 1 longshot.