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Sunday, 18 March, 2001, 17:01 GMT
May general election hint
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May local elections are still going ahead
Agriculture Minister Nick Brown has given the strongest hint yet that the government is prepared to call a May general election in spite of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

At this point I think it would be quite wrong to call them (the local elections) off

Michael Meacher
Speaking on ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby programme, Mr Brown said difficult circumstances were usually not sufficient to postpone elections.

He said: "We have held general elections at times of difficulty before".

Were a poll to be called, the government would continue to advise people to stay away from livestock areas, he said.

Campaign against disease

And he indicated he would remain at the Ministry of Agriculture during the election campaign to assist with the eradication of the disease.

The comments came as an opinion poll was published suggesting Labour is heading for a second landslide, with another 179-seat majority.

Earlier, Environment Minister Michael Meacher reaffirmed the government's commitment to go ahead with the local elections on 3 May.

Mr Meacher said that "at this point" in the foot-and-mouth outbreak it would be "quite wrong" to call off the local elections planned for early May.

The government's determination to push ahead with the scheduled local elections, combined with Mr Brown's comments, will fuel speculation that the general election is still going to be held on the same day.

The 3 May date has long been mooted as the most probable day for the poll - which New Labour hopes will propel it to a second term in power.

During an interview on Sunday, Mr Meacher expressed sympathy for farmers and people in the tourism industry who had been badly hit by the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Michael Meacher
Mr Meacher expressed sympathy for victims
He told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme: "At this point I think it would be quite wrong to call them (local elections) off.

"Partly - with seven weeks to go - we simply don't know what's going to happen with the future course of this disease but more particularly there is a more serious point.

"The sign we would be sending to the tourism industry abroad that if we say, with seven weeks to go, the situation is so serious that we are having to call this off, the implications for the livestock export industry - I really think that that is not wise at this point."

Last week, Conservative leader William Hague refused to support those groups calling for a postponement of the local elections - which will affect many of the shire counties.

Mr Hague made it clear, however that the timing of the general election was a legitimate question.

The opinion poll, conducted by ICM for the News of the World, suggested that the government could benefit from a 1.25% swing in marginal constituencies, bringing it a 179-seat majority.

If the poll is correct, the Liberal Democrats are set to lose 17 seats to the Conservatives.

In key marginals, Labour would increase its share of the vote by 3.4% compared to 1997, with the Conservatives gaining 0.9% and the Lib Dems losing 2.2%.

The poll also found senior members of the Tory shadow cabinet failing to make a lasting impression on the electorate.

Only 31% had heard of shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox, while shadow defence secretary Iain Duncan-Smith and shadow education secretary Theresa May were recognised by only 36% of respondents.

The most popular member of the government was Chancellor Gordon Brown, who polled an approval rating of 59%.

ICM interviewed a random sample of 1,502 adults in the 139 most marginal constituencies.

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See also:

15 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Poll decision needed soon - Hague
03 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Hague: Tories ready for election
16 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Lib Dems rally for election
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