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As Britain votes, Gordon Brown faces first big test

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"A bad result would be coming third [with] 26 percent of the vote or [less]," he adds. Such an outcome would increase Labour's restlessness as it girds itself for a general election most likely to be called in 2010.

"There is no question that Labour will get hammered," predicts Paul Whiteley, a pse–phologist at Essex University. Pointing to the Conservatives' lead in the polls – 18 points in one survey – he says that for the first time in 16 years they would get an absolute majority in parliament if elections were held now. "You are talking now about really big leads – the kind that Tony Blair had over [predecessor] John Major."

George Eustice, an aide to Conservative leader David Cameron, says the party is quietly confident about the elections. "Gordon Brown has been found out as a tactical character who doesn't have vision for the country," he says. "People are seeing fresh thinking in the Conservatives and our agenda."

Brown had, most agree, a good start to his tenure, dealing with attempted terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow last summer. But when he made known last autumn that he was considering an early election, he dithered and ultimately desisted.

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