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Sunday, 1 April, 2001, 22:44 GMT 23:44 UK
Blair gambles on election delay

By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair is taking a sizeable gamble by deciding to abandon a 3 May general election.

The prime minister is expected to confirm on Monday that local polls will be postponed until June - with the clear implication the national vote will come on the same day.

It will be the first time elections have been cancelled in Britain since the second World War and has already seen the Mr Blair accused of stoking up an atmosphere of national emergency.

But his move will allow him to claim he has put the country before the party by giving himself time to concentrate all his efforts on tackling the foot-and-mouth crisis.

And he clearly hopes it will satisfy rural communities where the foot-and-mouth crisis is at its most severe and where talk of an imminent general election campaign is greeted with dismay.

Cabinet rift

Ministers have denied the decision has caused a serious cabinet rift, although it is well known that the majority of both cabinet members and backbench Labour MPs favoured a 3 May poll.

They believed that postponing the elections would send out the signal that Britain was closed for business - a view the prime minister had previously expressed.

They are happy to accept the prime minister's decision, which all agree was a hugely difficult one.

Peter Mandelson
Did Peter Mandelson influence Mr Blair?
But they now fear that, having postponed the general election once, it will become increasingly difficult for the prime minister to press ahead with a June poll if the farms crisis has not lifted before then.

Opposition leaders are already stepping up the pressure on the prime minister, demanding that he should abandon all thoughts of a general election until the foot-and-mouth crisis has ended - whenever that is.

Delay until autumn?

And, if he is to avoid a potentially disastrous delay until the autumn, this will now be his biggest challenge.

Having decided he cannot run an election campaign at the same time as dealing with the countryside crisis - which he has taken personal control of - he now has only around five or six weeks to get a grip on the outbreak.

Most experts believe the crisis will actually worsen over that period and that will allow the opposition to demand yet another postponement of the general election.

Mr Blair's hope is that, by then, he will at least be able to show that he has put all the necessary measures in place to end the crisis and that the end is in sight.

Meanwhile, the way he made his decision has also raised some eyebrows on the Labour backbenches.

Some are angry that, apparently, the prime minister relied too heavily on the advice of advisers - some even suggesting former minister Peter Mandelson helped swing Mr Blair behind a postponement.

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See also:

01 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Blair delays May election
01 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Tories accuse Blair of 'dithering'
01 Apr 01 | UK
Papers back election delay
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