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Programme highlights Monday, 2 April, 2001, 14:47 GMT 15:47 UK
Blair bows to the inevitable
Prime Minister Tony Blair outside No 10 Downing St
Blair: 'Uncertainty cannot be allowed to continue'
For the first time since the Second World War, local council elections have been postponed from their usual date - the first Thursday in May.

Tony Blair appeared in front of huge press contingent in Downing Street on Monday to confirm what the Sun newspaper had announced on Saturday: that 3 May elections have been abandoned.

Sun headline: 'Election Off - Now it's June 7th as Blair puts country before party'
The Sun broke the news of the postponement on Saturday
Of course he didn't mention the general election at all. Mr Blair and his ministers will go through the charade of pretending that - since the election hasn't been called - it isn't being delayed. But everyone understands the reality.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak is still so serious that the Prime Minister believes he can't be seen to be fighting an election, rather than fighting the virus.

Curiously, a few moments before Mr Blair emerged from his front door, the Tory leader William Hague stepped out of Conservative Central Office - a few hundred yards away - to raise the stakes on the election date.


ELECTION STATEMENTS:
 Click here to watch Tony Blair's announcement in full
 William Hague: A new date shouldn't be set yet

"If as seems likely and has been leaked by the Government, elections cannot take place while this crisis continues, then we would accept that," he said.

"But, since they cannot possibly know when the crisis will end, in our view it would not be possible to set any new precise date for these elections to be held."

If the date has been deferred once, why not again? And again? What if Cumbria is still in quarantine in June?

The Tories will be delighted at any breathing space in which something might go wrong for Labour.

The fact that Tony Blair has blinked when confronted with a critical decision will be taken as a sign of weakness - which could be exploited further.

'National interest'

When Mr Blair stepped out into the spring sunshine, he explained that three factors governed his decision:

"First the impact that any delay and the signal it sends has on our tourism industry and the key national interest in avoiding unnecessary uncertainty for the broader economy.

"Secondly, the need for national and in some cases local politicians to be focused on the fight against foot and mouth disease as we put in place the machinery necessary to deal with any eventuality.

"And thirdly, the feelings and sensitivities of the people in the communities most affected.

"There is no practical impediment to free elections being held, even in the areas badly affected by foot and mouth disease - we're satisfied that the elections could go ahead, the question is whether they should."

U-turn

Within the past few weeks Mr Blair and his colleagues have been hammering away at a single, strong message: delaying the elections would send out an unwelcome message to the world.

A fortnight ago Margaret Becket said there would be great harm caused to British industry if the local elections were to be delayed.

Chris Smith reiterated that point as recently as Saturday, telling the BBC the government wanted to get the message across that Britain was still open for business, and so the elections would still go ahead.

Clearly Mr Smith had not seen the Sun newspaper headline on the same day: 'Election Off - Now it's 7 June as Blair puts country before party'.

The story was picked up across the media by Sunday morning and it was stated as a matter of fact that 3 May had been abandoned.

Critics say that Labour has displayed a craven desire to placate the Sun - which only a few days ago was campaigning actively for Mr Blair to stick to 3 May.

The theory goes that - in return for sympathetic treatment - the Sun could have the scoop.

But the paper's political editor, Trevor Kavanagh told the World at One the paper had secured the scoop themselves.

Further delays?

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said the prime minister had made the right decision.

"We will be giving our support to the emergency measures that Jack Straw will be announcing," he said.

He denied that his party would lose out financially with the delay in the general election, and insisted that the focus should be on the huge losses incurred by farmers.

Also on the programme, Andrew Lansley speaking for the Tories, argued that it was "absurd" to set the new June 7 date.

"They shouldn't have an election while their focus should be on dealing with the crisis which is not yet resolved, then is that not true five weeks hence?" he said.

But Labour's Margaret Beckett derided the Conservatives' criticisms as "folly". She suggested Mr Hague wants to defer the election to October or later.

"I think the problem for the Conservative Party is that they can't think of a date when they do want a general election in this century," she said.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The Sun's political editor Trevor Kavanagh
"Why can't we get credit for breaking the story by our own means?"
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
"The prime minister has made the right decision"
Links to more Programme highlights stories are at the foot of the page.


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