Gordon Brown triggers general election with Labour closing in on Tories
Exclusive 'National renewal' manifesto draft pledges boldness and sweeping change
British PM Gordon Brown. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Reuters
The prime minister will begin the four-week election battle as a new Guardian/ICM poll puts the parties at their closest in almost two years.
Gordon Brown will today take the journey from Downing Street to Buckingham Palace to trigger a 6 May general election to be fought on a Labour manifesto that promises a series of bold initiatives to reform public services in a programme of "national renewal".
A draft of the manifesto seen by the Guardian pledges that an unprecedented fourth-term Labour government would be "bolder about the role of state intervention in markets" and deliver sweeping constitutional change. Failing police forces could be taken over by their neighbours under one radical proposal.
Brown's trip to the palace will trigger four weeks of frenetic campaigning and comes as a shock Guardian ICM poll suggests Labour is clawing back support from the Tories. The poll gives the Conservatives a four-point lead " much smaller than in other recent surveys, reflecting the volatility of the electorate.
Brown will meet his cabinet for 45 minutes at 9.15am before driving to the palace to ask the Queen's permission to dissolve parliament. Previewing the message that will be at the heart of his election campaign, Brown said tonight: "The people of this country have fought too hard to get Britain on the road to recovery to allow anybody to take us back on to the road to recession."
Before launching his "GB on the road campaign", the prime minister will say the choice is between securing the recovery and a reckless Tory party that will derail it. He will insist that the Tories are alone in believing this year is the right time to cut £6bn in government spending.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, will counter by promising to fight for "the great ignored". For the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg will say: "The election marks the beginning of the end of Brown."
The draft manifesto, due to be put to a joint cabinet and national executive meeting on Wednesday evening, offers two dominant themes, of renewing the economy and establishing clearer citizens' rights and responsibilities.
It is being stressed that the manifesto will offer progressive solutions for tough times, including reforms of public services that match Tony Blair at his boldest.
New proposals contained in the draft, obtained by the Guardian, include:
• Provisions for the management of inefficient police forces to be taken over by efficient forces. "Where service is not good enough, it will be taken over by the best," the draft says.
• Simultaneous referendums on a new voting system for the Commons and a 100% elected second chamber.
• A national youth service alongside votes at 16.
• Rights for football supporters to take over football clubs.
• A living wage of £7.60 in Whitehall, funded by a cap on the salaries of the most highly paid public sector employees.
Cabinet-level discussions are also under way on a range of proposals including a cap on interest charged by credit card companies and a new review of competition law by the Office of Fair Trading.
Brown's team promised his campaign will be distinguished by meetings in canteens, living rooms and town halls. The contrast at a personal level will be offered between the granite resilience of the PM and Cameron's "plastic" leadership.
But the Conservatives, confident they have dealt a significant political blow by promising to cut national insurance contributions next year, believe they can pull off the biggest electoral swing since the 1930s and secure an overall majority.
In a London marginal constituency, Cameron will say: "We're fighting this election for the great ignored. Young, old, rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight. They start businesses, operate factories, teach our children, clean the streets, grow our food and keep us healthy " keep us safe.
"They work hard, pay their taxes, obey the law. They're good, decent people " they're the people of Britain and they just want a reason to believe that anything is still possible in our country. This election is about giving them that reason, giving them that hope."
Clegg will travel to the three-way marginal seat of Watford. He will say that after "13 years of dodging elections, despite being a key player in some of the most disastrous decisions, such as taking the country into an illegal war and a deep recession, [Brown] can't avoid going to the polls any longer".
My initial feeling is that Labour could be in trouble,
(I am, by the way, trying to use British rather than American spelling. Tough).
Election exit poll: Tories to be 19 short of majority
Nick Clegg, David Cameron, Gordon Brown
The leaders now await the verdict of Britain's electorate
David Cameron will fall 19 seats short of a Commons majority, according to a joint BBC/Sky/ITV exit poll.
The Conservatives would have 307 MPs, up 97 on 2005, Labour would have 255, down 94, and the Lib Dems 59, down 4. Nationalists and others would have 29.
That means Labour and the Lib Dems together could not have a majority.
There are reports of long queues of people still waiting to vote in some parts of the country after the most closely fought election in decades.
Polls closed across the country at 2200 BST but in Sutton Coldfield a BBC reporter says there are plans to lock voters inside the Mere Green Polling Station because the queues are currently so long.
The BBC/ ITV/Sky exit poll was conducted at 130 polling stations across the UK by NOP and Mori.
All exit polls have a small margin of error which could be significant in a tight election such as this one, in which the three main Westminster parties have been so close in the opinion polls.
There could also be different voting patterns around the country.
Nevertheless, Conservative leader David Cameron might find that winning one or two seats in Northern Ireland and forming a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party might be enough to give him a majority, making him Britain's next prime minister.
The exit poll anticipates that the Labour Party has been more successful at holding on to its vote in seats in Scotland and Wales in seats where there is a large ethnic minority population and where there is an incumbent Labour MP standing again.
The poll also anticipates the Lib Dems will perform better in England than in either Scotland or Wales, but a fall in number of MPs would still come as a blow to Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who has been neck-and-neck in the polls with the other two main parties for much of the campaign. ... <cont>