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Wednesday, 14 March, 2001, 13:46 GMT
Jobless fall overshadowed by farms crisis
Foot-and-mouth restiction
Foot-and-mouth is dominating political agenda
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair has been delivered a major pre-election boost with unemployment falling below the symbolic one million mark.

The expected reduction marks a 25 year low and allows ministers to claim their plans to create full employment are on track.

As usual, it has been pointed out that other measures of counting the jobless, such as those by the International Labour Organisation, put the figure nearer one and a half million.

Job seeker
Unemployment was pre-election boost
But that will not detract from the government's satisfaction that, along with inflation and interest rates, they are now seeing a consistently low level of unemployment.

Under normal circumstances this would only add to the near-certainty that the general election would be held on 3 May - as long predicted.

But at the same time as receiving the latest bit of good news, the foot-and-mouth crisis intensified and continued to overshadow everything else.

Abandon polls

In the latest move, an all-party alliance of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat county council leaders urged him to ditch the local elections on 3 May.

And they said he should also abandon any plans he may have to hold the general election on the same day.

They warned the prime minister that to press ahead with the polls would risk a public backlash.

And the prime minister himself raised speculation that he might be ready to make an announcement when, during a press conference on the jobless figures, he suggested he might have something more the say on the issue later in the day.

His spokesman immediately insisted his remark had not been intended to signal any such announcement.

And the line from Downing Street remained the same - that there were no plans to postpone the local polls.

Prime Minister Tony Blair with Cgancellor Gordon Brown (left) and Employment Minister Tessa Jowell
Blair welcomed jobless fall
Spokesmen point out that the main issue is whether people can actually vote and that the availability of postal ballots on demand answers that question.

However it is widely believed emergency plans for just such a move are being drawn up.

Out of time

To call off the local elections would make it hugely difficult for the prime minister not to also announce that there would be no general election that day, so vastly limiting his room for manoeuvre.

But the pressure looks certain to intensify over the coming days, and the prime minister is rapidly running out of time.

If he is to go to the country on 3 May - which most believe has always been his plan - he has only a matter of days to make up his mind.

An announcement could then come within the next two weeks or so.

Meanwhile, lurking behind all this is the massive fall on the stock markets due to the global slump in share prices.

While this has had little or no political impact yet, if the slide continues it could still add to the prime minister's woes as shareholders begin to feel the pinch.

But all eyes are now on the foot-and-mouth crisis and the looming election and Mr Blair is rapidly reaching the point where he must make up his mind whether the elections will take place in May or not.

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See also:

14 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Blair unveils jobless milestone
14 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Government resists election delay
14 Mar 01 | Business
Stock markets hammered
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