London (CNSNews.com) - Britain's seven-week-old foot-and-mouth outbreak saw its first major political ramification Monday when Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that local government elections were being postponed for a month - the first time since World War II polls have been delayed because of a national crisis.
Although the decision relates to May 3 elections for local country bodies, the announcement in effect also postpones a general election, which Blair had planned to call on the same day. Local elections will now be held on June 7, and a general election probably the same day.
Farmers had long urged the government to put off elections, focusing its energies instead on tackling the epidemic, which threatens the livestock and tourism industries. But last week political and religious figures added their voices to the calls, adding to the pressure.
Speaking outside his office in central London, Blair said the national interest would be best served by a postponement, to take account of the "feelings and sensitivities" of people living and working in the areas worst hit by the disease.
Emergency legislation will now have to be pushed through parliament to enable the local polls to be delayed.
Responding to Blair's announcement, Conservative leader William Hague said no new date should have been set until the crisis was resolved.
But while the Conservatives would benefit from a longer delay, Blair is widely thought not to want to put off the parliamentary election until after the summer, when economic and other woes could whittle away at his sizeable lead in the opinion polls.
More than 900 cases of foot-and-mouth have now been confirmed in the UK.