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The corridors of power...

For William Hague it's a case of 'first the bad news - and then the worse news'.

The bad news is that the opinion polls are showing the Tories so far behind Labour it is becoming unlikely they can catch up if we are confronted with a spring general election.

The gap between the two parties is now so wide – an astonishing 24 points in one survey – that the pundits are already talking about Tony Blair sweeping back to power with an even greater majority.

I do not share that view, but it has to be said the opinion poll figures are enough to make even the most optimistic Conservative supporter clutch his brow in agony.

Now, no one can derive any pleasure from the foot-and-mouth outbreak, but for the Conservatives it has the merit of possibly deferring the evil day of a general election.

The signs were Blair wanted to go on 5 April. The frenzy for that date had become so marked the nation was heading towards it, and the prime minister had done nothing to dampen that frenzy.

But he would have to declare that date on 12 March at the latest, a scenario which given the foot-and-mouth crisis, has now, I would have thought, become impossible.

3 May, the date of the county council elections, was his next choice.

But that scenario, too, is fading feast. He could go in June, but with the onset of holidays, his next option would be October.

The outbreak has plainly thrown his calculations awry.

One senior Labour MP, Tam Dalyell, wants him to go the whole hog and not have an election until next year.

Soon the prime minister will have to make his position clear, otherwise we shall be faced with non-stop electioneering for months to come.

Meanwhile, the Tories ironically are grudgingly starting to hum the Labour song: Things can only get better. They could scarcely get worse for the Tories.

At least, that is what they pray for: a defeat without the humiliation, since victory now seems beyond their grasp.

  • Chris Moncrieff is a senior political analyst at PA News

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