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Saturday, 31 March, 2001, 23:26 GMT 00:26 UK
Rising pressure pushed Blair towards June
Ballot box
The general election will be delayed until June
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair's decision to postpone the general election until June will have been the most difficult of his premiership.

A 3 May poll had been pencilled into his diary from virtually the day after the last general election.

And he has changed his plans only because of the rising tide of opinion against that date as a result of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

There is an element of gamble in his change of heart, but the prime minister clearly believes it would now do him more damage to press ahead with an early poll than hang fire for just a month.

But, as MPs come to terms with the fact that they have another month before campaigning proper can start, there are some looming dangers for the prime minister.

Claims of 'dithering'

The opposition parties will seize on Mr Blair's announcement to claim he had dithered and should have cancelled the election sooner.

And there is the real danger that foot-and-mouth might actually get worse between now and June.

There is also the fear that by delaying, he has sent precisely the "Britain is closed for business" message to the rest of the world that he has desperately been trying to avoid.

There is an element of gamble in his change of heart

There is also the danger that the downturn in the US economy might start having an effect on the British economy by then.

He may also face claims that he has caved in to pressure from the Tories and their supporters in the media.

William Hague will welcome the delay because every extra week until the poll gives him time to try and make up ground on the government.

Few, however, believe he will be able to make any significant gains in just one month and Mr Blair must be confident that his poll lead is secure enough for him to risk a delay.

Poll sway

Recent opinion polls showing the public mood swinging against 3 May will have finally swayed Mr Blair.

And by, in effect, announcing the date of the general election, he has also ensured voters get one of the longest campaigns in recent history.

While all the political parties will insist that there will be no campaigning while the crisis in the countryside continues, all other political business will in effect come to a halt.

Everything from now on will be seen as part of the unofficial election campaign, which has already been raging for weeks.

The next move will be for the government to take measures in the Commons to allow for the postponement of the local polls, also scheduled for 3 May.

The daily meetings with ministers and farmers representatives will continue and Mr Blair will want to show he is personally in charge of the battle to end the crisis.

However, he will want to see a definite turnaround in the situation over the next month if his delay is not to be seen as a wasted gesture.

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See also:

31 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Blair delays election until June
31 Mar 01 | UK Politics
A May poll 'too cynical'
31 Mar 01 | Scotland
Kennedy calls for election delay
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