Blair agrees to put off poll over FMD

LONDON, Reuters

British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared on Sunday to have decided to put off a widely predicted May 3 general election and take the biggest gamble of his government.

The poll delay looked inevitable after political sources said on Sunday a foot-and-mouth (FMD) epidemic among livestock, which has made the countryside a virtual no-go area, had forced the postponement of a local poll that had also been set for May 3.

Blair has a big opinion poll lead and his Labour party is ready to go to the voters, but the foot-and-mouth crisis that has stricken hundreds of farm animals made him hesitate.

There was no announcement from Downing Street, which kept silent under a barrage of reports that Blair — hunkered down at his country estate outside London — had decided he could not call the election on the May 3 date pencilled in months ago.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher, asked if elections would be delayed until at least June because of the foot and-mouth crisis, all but confirmed it.

“Clearly things are moving that way, but there has been no formal announcement,” Meacher told BBC’s Radio 5.

Political sources told Reuters that local elections in England could not go ahead as planned for May 3 because of the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

“And my judgment is he will not call the general election tonight, or tomorrow, or in the coming week either,” one source told Reuters. Blair would have to act this week if he were to call a general election for May 3.

Downing Street said only that Blair “will act in the best interest of the whole country”.

Blair was expected to clear the air with a statement on Sunday or Monday. Changing the date for local elections will require legislation in parliament. Officials have said in the past that if local polling did not go ahead in May, June 7 would be the next favored date.

It would be the first time since World War II for elections to be suspended because of a national crisis, and a reversal of what ministers had been saying in recent days.

It would also be a gamble against historical odds, which say that he who hesitates is often lost in British politics.

Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan was urged to go to the country late in 1978 but delayed six months. Meanwhile a winter of national strikes helped sweep the Tories into power.

Some of Blair’s ministers had argued publicly that to delay even the local elections would imply the democratic process was being put on hold while Britain struggled with foot-and-mouth.

The decision to call an election is the prime minister’s alone. Blair, elected by landslide in May 1997, can wait until as late as May 2002 to invite voters back to the polls. The May 3 local election date had been set by legislation.