03 August 2007

Events, Dear Boy

From BBC News:

Cattle at a farm in Surrey have been found to be infected with foot and mouth disease.

Animals on a farm near Guildford had tested positive for the disease which swept the UK and wreaked havoc in 2001.

A three-kilometre protection zone has been put in place around the premises and a UK-wide ban imposed on movement of all cattle and pigs.

The farm has been under restrictions since late on Thursday when symptoms were reported.

Given how the last foot and mouth outbreak overshadowed the 2001 Election, which was a dull campaign anyway, this could dent confidence in the Brown camp, unless this is an isolated incident. And confidence in victory necessarily needs to be high given Labour's finances.

On a wider point, this is worth watching. If this case is the first of many, it will be the second major foot and mouth crisis since 1997. The last one even triggered the downfall of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, widely seen to have mishandled the situation. It also led to far more widespread restrictions on movement that terrorism and the threat of terrorism have been able to cause in recent years. The last Tory government had a torrid time over BSE. Foot and mouth has the potential to hit Labour in the same way.

It's tempting to say that I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, and given that this is just one outbreak on one farm, we can't jump to firm conclusions yet, but I maintain that we have to keep our eye on this. It's also tempting to say that this is just a 'rural issue' that should only concern us if we live out in the sticks. I disagree: whether you live out in the country or in the middle of the city, you still have to eat, and food, however processed, tends to start its journey to your plate, stomach and onwards from... that's right, farms. If farming suffers, if disease is a problem in the place where your food comes from, that's a problem for you wherever you live: it means you become less sure about the produce you buy. So if this can't be nipped in the bud quickly, you'll find yourself wondering about just what is and what isn't safe when you're in the shops. So if the government mishandles a production problem, that creates a crisis in consumer confidence. And combined with the H5N1 outbreak on the Bernard Matthews turkey farm, this will become a stick with which to beat Gordon Brown.

And that is why an early election might no longer be on the cards, if it ever was.

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