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Blair's election gamble

LONDON,England (CNN) -- Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has taken a gamble with his political future by signalling that the country's next General Election, long expected to be on May 3, will be held instead on June 7.

He announced that against the background of the foot-and-mouth epidemic it would not be "appropriate" to hold the local government council elections fixed for May 3 and that they would be postponed to June 7.

The General Election, which he can call at any time up to next April, is expected to be held on the same day

Following his local elections announcement Blair emphasised: "We cannot, should not and will not indefinitely suspend the democratic process. A short postponement for the reasons I have given is one thing. An indefinite delay is quite another."

Reporters were left in no doubt that the prime minister plans a general election too on June 7 and is determined not to let it slip any later than that.

He could not announce the general election date because he may not do without seeking the Queen's permission to dissolve Parliament.

In addition, the moment he has called a general election, much of the government process stops. Civil servants are under restrictions from that point so as not to become involved in the political process.

Not long ago Blair was arguing that postponing elections would harm the tourist industry and would signal to the outside world that Britain was "closed for business." His last minute change of mind is the result of several factors.

The prime minister felt, and opinion polls demonstrated that most people agreed that he could not mastermind efforts to bring the foot and mouth epidemic under control at the same time as running an election campaign.

After visits to the areas worst affected by the disease he became aware of strong feelings in some country communities that it was "inappropriate" to hold elections. Opinion polls showed nearly two thirds of voters in favour of postponement.

Blair has listened to advisers who warned him that he should be careful to appear at such a time as a national leader unifying the country rather than a party leader seeking political advantage. But his decision still represents a gamble.

For a start, by leaving it to the last minute to call off the expected May election Blair has looked like a ditherer. William Hague, the Conservative Opposition leader pressed early on in the foot and mouth epidemic for a more rigorous slaughter policy, for use of the army to help the culling programme and for an election delay. All three measures have now been adopted.

Most of Blair's Cabinet colleagues and the vast bulk of Labour Members of Parliament wanted a May election to capitalise on their 20 point lead in the opinion polls. If delaying the election results in a dip in Labour's fortunes and electoral disadvantage they will not easily forgive him. His authority in the party would suffer.

The government has little legislation left in its programme to push through and Parliament will now sit for a month longer than intended with little to do. Ministers could begin to look short of purpose.

There are further risks for Blair in the delay. Firstly he and his ministers now have to counter the effects on the tourist industry which they themselves warned could be hard hit by election delays.

Secondly there is the risk that , if the disease is still raging in May, it will be harder to resist arguments for a further delay. If an election against a background of raging disease is "inappropriate" in May how can it become appropriate in June?

But the last thing Blair and his Cabinet want is to be pushed into an autumn election. By then Britain could be catching America's cold and suffering an economic downturn.

Finally, with apathy and low turnout the biggest election worry for Labour, the party now faces in effect an unofficial ten week election campaign which could leave many people bored with politics by the time the poll date approaches.

Blair has had to balance a wide range of arguments and has chosen what he regards as the least worst option. But he is unlikely to breathe easily again until the election is over and he is back in Downing Street with a renewed majority.



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