Blair plans to delay May re-election bid

British prime minister worried about backlash over foot-mouth crisis

April 02, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair has decided to change his carefully nurtured plans to seek re-election next month, fearing that voter backlash could reduce his commanding lead in the polls if he held the election while the foot-and-mouth epidemic continued unchecked.

Blair is expected to make his decision public today, the deadline for submitting a bill to Parliament postponing the May 3 date of local elections -- and with it his long-held resolve to call a national vote the same day.

The spread of the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease is not expected to be halted by the end of the election delay, which many predict will be for one month. But Blair is counting on the added time to convey to the public the impression that he will not be distracted by party politics from taking personal charge of the crisis and pointing the country back toward normality.

The Ministry of Agriculture put the number of confirmed cases in the six-week epidemic at 875 yesterday, and that of livestock marked for slaughter in the preventive cull at 940,000.

A poll by MORI, published in the Sunday Telegraph, suggested the perils that Blair might have encountered if he had persisted with a vote on May 3: It showed his Labor Party losing three points from its 19-point lead in the past three days because of rural unease.

Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's spokesman, said Blair's announcement today "will do what is right for the country as a whole."

While putting off any official word until then, 10 Downing St. alerted the British Broadcasting Corp. and selected newspapers on Saturday night of the outcome of the week of fevered political consultations. It would be the first suspension of local elections -- which, unlike the national vote, are on a regular schedule -- since World War II.

In making his decision, Blair rejected the advice of many members of his Cabinet and a majority of Labor members of Parliament, who were eager to capitalize on the party's favorable showing in opinion surveys.

They are also worried that delay could expose the party to the dangers of declining economic fortunes or some other event in what has been a star-crossed period of natural calamities and public-service collapses in Britain.

In addition to the foot-and-mouth epidemic, which broke out in February and has led to restrictions on movement in the countryside, the past year has produced other blows to the sense of national well-being.

Britain has had the greatest yearly rainfall since computation began in 1765, the worst floods in 400 years, fatal train crashes and speed restrictions on the rails that have caused havoc, and a wildcat protest of gasoline taxes that managed to close down 90 percent of British supplies to motorists almost overnight.

Blair and the Labor Party have maintained their polling lead over the opposition Conservatives throughout, except during the gasoline tax protest, when the public rallied to farmers and truckers and gave the Tories the only lead in the polls that they have enjoyed since Blair came to power with a 179-seat majority in the election of May 1997.

The gasoline protest last fall caught 10 Downing St. by surprise, and Blair's pollsters have been warning him in recent days that the current crisis could produce a similarly combustible anti-government mood if he were perceived as

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