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Thursday, 5 April, 2001, 15:14 GMT 16:14 UK
Blair's long road to June election
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair has launched a long election campaign
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

One of the inevitable outcomes of Tony Blair's decision to postpone the local elections until 7 June is that he has also, in effect, announced the date of the general election.

And the prime minister did little to deny this when he made his Downing Street statement, admitting there would be speculation that the national poll will be held on that date.

It is the nearest he can go to firing the starting gun on the campaign without officially announcing it.

And by suggesting he will not postpone the local elections again, irrespective of the state of the foot-and-mouth crisis, he has virtually locked himself in to a June general election.

Ministers will now be praying that the crisis does not run out of control or that other unforeseen events do not emerge to threaten the new election date.

It was clearly a hugely difficult decision for the prime minister to make and has caused some serious disquiet within the government and the Labour Party.

Further delay

Some ministers are clearly dismayed at the way the prime minister arrived at his decision and that they only learned of the move when they read about it in the national press.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott
Prescott wanted May
The majority of the cabinet were still pressing for the poll to be held on 3 May and some, including Culture Secretary Chris Smith and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, continued to argue for it even after Mr Blair had changed his mind.

The Tories have seized on the change of heart to insist that it would be wrong to name any date for elections until the foot-and-mouth crisis was over.

And they will now continue to pressure the prime minister into delaying the general election even further in the hope they can use the delay to build support.

Mr Blair insists that his decision strikes the right balance "between a delay that lets us put the right strategies and mechanisms in place, and the avoidance of real and lasting damage to our democratic and economic stability, which an indefinite postponement would cause".

It is claimed he started to have second thoughts over 3 May after his visits to the affected areas last week.

Mr Blair spoke of the "pain and anxiety" and "suffering and hardship" in those areas, and those close to him claim he has been personally affected by the visits.

As a result, he is eager to show these communities that he has been listening to their concerns and demands.

Cabinet advice

Mr Blair's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, described as "garbage" reports that the prime minister had made his decision after taking advice from his so-called kitchen cabinet of advisers rather than from cabinet ministers.

"The advice he values most strongly is from his cabinet colleagues, particularly those most directly affected," he added.

The prime minister's official spokesman Alastair Campbell
Campbell offered advice
But there have been persistent claims that Mr Blair was particularly swayed by advisers such as Mr Campbell, his chief of staff Jonathan Powell, his focus groups supremo Phillip Gould and his special assistant Anji Hunter.

There have even been reports that he took advice from former minister Peter Mandelson.

The prime minister is eager to dismiss these claims, particularly that certain advisers like Ms Hunter have become overly influential.

But those who deal with Downing Street regularly know that these people do indeed have significant power and influence.

Ms Hunter, an old student friend and one of his first prime ministerial appointments, is regularly described as Mr Blair's "gatekeeper" and it is certainly the case that little happens without her knowledge and, sometimes, input.

But, while she clearly has influence with the prime minister so do the other key members of his team of advisers.

Closed for business

Cabinet ministers are now insisting they were consulted by Mr Blair as he struggled with his dilemma over the elections date.

They all admit it was a hugely sensitive decision and are mostly happy to accept a small postponement - even those who fear it has sent out the "Britain is closed for business" message they have all been desperate to avoid.

Tory leader William Hague
Hague is demanding more delays
The challenge for the prime minister now is to ensure that all the mechanisms are put into place to get a grip on the foot-and-mouth crisis over the next month.

The Tories, however, believe the crisis is likely to get worse over the next few weeks and will put new pressure on the prime minister to delay the poll a second time.

That is unthinkable for most ministers and they are buoyed up by the fact that voters appear to be behind the prime minister's decision.

But Mr Blair's announcement runs the risk of subjecting voters to one of the longest election campaigns in recent memory.

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02 Apr 01 | UK Politics
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