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The BBC's Andrew Marr
"William Hague knows how hard it is going to be"
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MORI spokeswoman Jessica Elgood
"Tony Blair has come through as a very strong leader"
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The BBC's Paul Moss
"The Prime minister did emphasise the need to avoid complacency"
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Thursday, 3 May, 2001, 18:18 GMT 19:18 UK
Election speculation mounts
Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair looks to election date
By BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder

Speculation that a 7 June general election is to be announced next week has intensified after it emerged that Tony Blair has cancelled a planned trip abroad next Monday.

The prime minister was due to travel to Berlin to address a conference of European socialist leaders but Downing Street now says Foreign Secretary Robin Cook will go instead.

Mr Blair is to concentrate instead on "the domestic agenda", said his spokesman - a comment taken to be the clearest signal yet that the prime minister is preparing to call the election next week.

Tony Blair took a significant gamble when he postponed the general election from 3 May because of the foot-and-mouth crisis, but it appears to have paid off.

On Thursday, the very day everyone had originally expected to be going to the polls, he announced the outbreak was under control and, in effect, fired the starting gun on the election campaign.

Local Labour parties and MPs have been hyped up for the election since the end of last year.

Much ordinary political business has, to all intents and purposes, been on hold for months.

Slaughtered sheep in foot-and-mouth outbreak
Outbreak under control
Huge sums of money have already been spent by all the political parties on pre-election campaigning.

And when Mr Blair announced a postponement it left a gaping hole in most politicians' diaries.

Neither they nor the overwhelming majority of voters would be pleased if there was now a further delay.

Diary date

The gamble for Mr Blair when he made his difficult decision to put off polling day for a month was twofold.

First, it was based on the expectation that he would be able to make the statement he has now delivered. He probably even had the date for the statement written into his diary.

But he knew that if he could not claim, as he has now done, that "we are on the home straight" he would have blown it.

A further delay would have looked like panic and he would have entered the campaign in the embarrassing position of looking as though the disease was in control of him.

So his statement that he has it under control has come at just the right time.

But even that contains an element of gamble. As he admitted himself, it would be dangerous to assume the crisis was completely over.

In a statement which many might see as applying as much to the general election as to foot-and-mouth, he declared: "It is not over yet, we cannot in any way be complacent."

There is a small risk that the outbreak could flare up again and that would prove disastrous.

More events

The second gamble was that other "events" would not erupt out of the blue to hit his otherwise impregnable-looking poll ratings.

There have, inevitably, been some small rumbles. There was the expected May Day trouble, the London underground dispute and, now, a possible flare up in the Geoffrey Robinson affair.

There are some fears that, because of global conditions, the economy might be entering a difficult period.

And, thanks to the German SPD, the issue of a federal Europe has again raised its head.

But, so far, none of these appears strong enough to cause the government any serious trouble.

If the opinion polls are right, Mr Blair is still firmly on course for his dreamed-of second term.

A lot of water will flow under the bridge between now and 7 June and most expect Mr Blair to have his fair share of setbacks during the campaign.

But the foot-and-mouth statement will almost certainly be seen as the event at which the prime minister set his party on course for that date with destiny.

Now he seems to be clearing his diary to make the final adjustments before announcing the election date.

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See also:

02 May 01 | UK
'No more pyres' for Devon
02 Apr 01 | UK Politics
Blair confirms election delay
03 May 01 | UK
UK 'winning disease battle'
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