At last, Britain is about to get an election date.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected Tuesday to play his hand, pay a visit to Queen Elizabeth II and name a date for the first national vote since 2005 _ almost certainly May 6.
For Brown, appreciated by some but widely unloved, election day could mark the ignominious end of a three-year term beset by division within his party, relentless media sniping and the near-collapse of the British economy.
Defeat would end a British political era begun with Tony Blair's landslide 1997 election victory, which returned the Labour Party to office and brought an unprecedented three successive election triumphs for the center-left party.
Britain's Conservatives _ the party of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill _ hope to win a national election for the first time since 1992.
Brown's Labour Party is as much as 10 points behind the Conservatives and their articulate but untested leader, David Cameron, in opinion polls. But an unusual electoral map means the outcome is still uncertain and some cracks are beginning to show in the Conservatives' modern facade.
"The Conservative Party and its supporters really must understand the scale of the battle they have to fight," former Conservative deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine told BBC radio.
Whoever ends up running the debt-plagued nation will face restive unions and a population that will be asked to contribute more and receive less.
Britain's recession-wracked economy and enormous debt are likely to dominate the election campaign. Both Labour and Conservatives say they will trim spending and slash the country's 167 billion pound ($250 billion) deficit _ but they differ on how deep, and how soon, to make cuts.
The Tories say they will reverse Labour's planned hike to national insurance, a payroll tax paid by employees and employers, and implement about 6 billion pounds in spending cuts this year. Labour says major cuts should be deferred until next year to give the economy more time to recover.
In a podcast on the prime minister's Web site Monday, Brown said Conservative plans to cut public spending could tip the economy back into recession.
Brown compared the economy to injured soccer star Wayne Rooney, saying that "after an injury, you need support to recover. ... If you withdraw support too early, you risk doing more damage."
The Conservatives countered with an election poster showing a single green shoot emerging from a bleak landscape _ with a boot bearing the words "Job Tax" preparing to stamp on it.
"The choice in this election is very, very clear. You have either got Labour stamping out the recovery, stamping on the green shoots, or the Conservatives avoiding the jobs tax," Conservative Treasury spokesman George Osborne said.
Britain must hold an election by June 3. Brown is expected to announce Tuesday that it will be held May 6 _ when elections for town halls are already scheduled to take place, traveling to Buckingham Palace to ask Queen Elizabeth II to dissolve Parliament so campaigning can start.
For all the posturing, the major parties agree on many issues. They would keep British troops in Afghanistan and seek to preserve the so-called "special relationship" with the U.S.
Britain's next government must make sharp cuts to services, complete political reforms following a scandal over lawmakers' inflated and fraudulent expenses claims, and public sector unions _ sensing the looming cuts _ are in militant mood and threatening strikes.
"Our message to the politicians should be simple _ if you're coming for our jobs, our pensions, our services and our education, we are going to stand together and we are going to defend them," Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union _ which represents about 300,000 people _ said Monday.
Voter anger could benefit small and fringe parties in the election, including the Greens and the racist British National Party _ neither of whom currently hold a House of Commons seat.
Politicians are also waiting to see whether a more U.S.-style, personality-centered campaign _ including the first-ever televised debates between the leaders of Labour, the Conservatives and the third-placed Liberal Democrats _ will help build interest in the campaign.
The Conservatives, who have consistently led in opinion polls for more than two years, hope voter weariness with Brown's Labour _ in power since 1997 _ will propel them to victory.
And the party itself has changed, at least on the surface. The 43-year-old Cameron has sought to replace his party's fusty, right-wing image with a more modern brand of "compassionate Conservatism," and drawn more women and members of ethnic minorities to a party long dominated by affluent white men like himself.
With his bicycle riding, informal "call me Dave" manner and young family _ his wife Samantha is expecting their fourth child in September _ Cameron resembles Labour's former savior Tony Blair, who swept his party back to power in 1997. Many Britons sympathized with the Camerons over the death in 2009 of their eldest child, 6-year-old Ivan, who suffered from cerebral palsy and a rare and severe epilepsy condition.
Last week, Labour deployed Blair himself to challenge Cameron's supposed likeness. In his first domestic political speech since leaving office in 2007, Blair accused the opposition party of lacking principles, saying the Conservative election slogan "vote for change" begged the question: "Change to what exactly?"
The party's modern new image suffered a blow Saturday when home affairs spokesman Chris Grayling was recorded saying Christian bed-and-breakfast owners should be allowed to turn away gay couples.
Gay rights groups called for Grayling to be fired and Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said the remarks _ secretly recorded at a meeting of a right-of-center think tank last week _ showed the Tories had not changed. "When the camera is on they say one thing and when the camera is off they say another," Mandelson said.
Osborne said Grayling would keep his job, and like other senior Tories had voted for legislation banning discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
But the episode adds to Conservative jitters about an election many predict will end without an outright winner.
Because of the quirks of Britain's electoral system, the Conservatives need a large swing to ensure a majority of House of Commons seats. Labour traditionally wins more seats in urban areas, which usually contain fewer voters and have a lower turnout than in rural voter districts _ dominated by the Conservatives.
The Conservatives lost the 2005 election despite taking a bigger share of the popular vote than Labour.
Many recent opinion polls suggest the election may result in a hung Parliament, in which no party has an absolute majority, for the first time since 1974. Depending on the result, Brown or Cameron is likely to attempt to form a coalition government, or plan for a second election later this year.
Cameron said Sunday that a hung Parliament would damage British interests and create uncertainty at a time of economic difficulty.
At last, Britain is about to get an election date.