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Monday, 2 April, 2001, 21:02 GMT 22:02 UK
Blair confirms election delay
Tony Blair decided on delay at the weekend
Tony Blair decided on delay at the weekend
Prime Minister Tony Blair has postponed May's local elections until 7 June - when he will almost certainly hold a general election too.

He said voting on the original date of 3 May would have been possible in spite of the foot-and-mouth epidemic but he wanted to take account of the "feelings and sensitivities" of people in affected areas.

General election timetable?
4 April - Emergency legislation rushed through parliament
5 April - Voters must have names on electoral roll
14 May - Last day to dissolve Parliament and call election
22 May - Last day for candidates to be nominated
7 June - Polling day
Home Secretary Jack Straw later told the Commons that emergency legislation to put back the county council elections will be rushed through both Houses of Parliament.

It is the first time since the Second World War that such a step has been taken.

Conservative leader William Hague is supporting a delay but insists it is wrong to set a new date while the full extent of foot-and-mouth is still unclear.

'Bad for tourism'

Speaking to journalists on the steps of Downing Street, Mr Blair said a "short postponement" of the local elections was in the "national interest".

But he said he could not "indefinitely suspend the democratic process".

"Any period of uncertainty is bad for tourism, sending out the wrong message, because Britain is indeed open for business," he said.

Although he did not mention the general election specifically, it is almost certain to be held on the same date as the county council elections.

William Hague
William Hague: "Unwise to set precise new poll date"
Even before Mr Blair had made his announcement, Mr Hague was unveiling his tactics.

"They cannot know whether they can be held on 7 June.

"It must be the priority to fight the disease rather than to fight elections," he said.

Jack Straw told MPs that elections for 34 county councils and 11 unitary authorities in England as well as 26 district councils in Northern Ireland would now take place on 7 June.

Council by-elections due to take place on or after 3 May would also take place on 7 June.

The emergency measures to be introduced in the Commons on Wednesday would also compensate councils for any extra expenditure involved.


It must be the priority to fight the disease rather than to fight elections

William Hague
"Delaying elections isn't a step ever to be taken lightly," said Mr Straw.

"A relatively short postponement is an appropriate response in these circumstances."

Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe said: "This is another chapter in the catalogue of dithering and delay which has characterised this government's handling of foot-and-mouth."

She suggested that the local elections should be delayed even longer if the disease was not brought under control soon.

"Is that date written in a tables of stone?" she asked.

The home secretary replied that any further delay would leave areas of the country without proper local representation as councillors stood down, retired or died.

Playing politics

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy described the delay as "the right move and it is one we will support".

He criticised the Tories for "playing politics with the issue", saying the prime minister had listened to what people had to say and had made a "sensible judgement".

Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy: Had been seeking delay
The prime minister's official spokesman said Mr Blair had discussed his dilemma with every member of the Cabinet, which had been split over the decision.

Shortly before Mr Blair's announcement, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott conceded he was among those who had backed May.

"I was rather an advocate for May but I knew it was a very difficult decision," he said.

Mr Blair's reluctance to refer directly to the general election is partly because of civil service rules.

Once a date is named, activity in government departments is greatly curtailed to prevent accusations of officials being used for party political purposes.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's political correspondent John Pienaar
"The government wanted to avoid an election that would leave a bad taste"
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair
"I have decided that the national interest is best served by postponing these elections until June 7th"
William Hague, Conservative leader
"We would not be in favour of a new particular date being set... until this crisis is resolved"
Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
"It is the right move and it is one that I support"

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See also:

02 Apr 01 | UK Politics
02 Apr 01 | UK Politics
02 Apr 01 | UK Politics
03 Apr 01 | UK Politics
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