Opinion polls show UK Brown's lead evaporating

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LONDON, Oct 5 (Reuters) The commanding lead of Britain's ruling Labour Party evaporated in three new opinion polls on Friday that could torpedo any plans Prime Minister Gordon Brown might have to call a snap election.

''It's real white knuckle territory for Gordon Brown,'' said David Cowling, editor of BBC Political Research, as the premier faced the toughest decision of his political career after just 100 days in office.

David Cameron's opposition Conservatives have bounced back after a party conference that called for cuts in inheritance tax and tax breaks for people buying their first home.

A poll in the Guardian newspaper showed the two parties neck and neck with 39 per cent each. The Times gave Labour 39 points and the Conservatives on 36. A Channel 4 poll put Labour on 40 per cent and the Conservatives on 36 per cent.

Brown, who took over from Tony Blair in June, had been enjoying a honeymoon period with voters. Brown does not have to call an election for two and a half years.

His poll lead had climbed to 11 points since taking over from Blair after a decade waiting in the wings as finance minister steering a buoyant economy.

His handling of a string of crises -- from bomb attacks to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease -- won praise.

But now, with Labour parliamentarians in marginal constituencies nervous about their seats and the polls underlining voter volatility, Brown faces an agonising weekend deciding if he will take a gamble.

If he makes the wrong decision, he could end up as one of Britain's shortest-lived premiers or have his authority severely damaged with a reduced parliamentary majority.

With the Conservatives galvanised by their successful party conference, any decision to call a snap election for next month is now on a knife edge.

A Sky News poll of viewers today showed 75 per cent now believed Brown would not call an election.

A defiant Cameron, who had faced a rough ride from right-wingers resisting a shift to the centre in his party, said: ''I hope he (Brown) goes ahead and calls that election and we can put that choice in front of the British people.'' Cameron, whose tax pledges appeal strongly to middle-class voters in the crucial election battleground of ''Middle England,'' piled pressure on Brown to reveal his hand.

He asked the premier yesterday to allow Conservatives to hold pre-election meetings with senior ministry officials.

This was so the officials would be ready to implement Conservative policies if the party won an election.

Cameron's defiant stance prompted a sharp response from Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly yesterday night: ''Be careful what you wish for.'' Brushing off the latest rash of polls, she told BBC Television: ''I don't find it surprising at all. The polls bounce around, over the summer the polls bounce around all the time.'' But Conservative finance spokesman George Osborne was predictably scornful of Brown: ''I think he is really playing politics with the political process in a way that we have not seen from a Prime Minister of either party for a very long time.'' Reuters SYU DB1339

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