WHILE rural communities are consumed by foot-and-mouth disease, the political classes are being consumed by election date fever.

Before we wade in on the latter, we should remind ourselves of the nature of the political game.

Understandably, since October, Labour has been desperate for a May 3 poll. On every measure, it is way ahead of the Conservatives. The Budget was greeted kindly and, such is the strength of the economy, it has been able to ride every difficulty - from Mandelson to Corus - without sustaining any damage. When your lead is as large as 20 points, something soon is bound to blow up and damage you and give heart to your opposition. Labour, therefore, has absolutely nothing to gain by waiting any longer.

Equally understandably, since October, the Conservatives have been desperate for the election to be later than May 3. The more time between now and the election, the more time there is for something to go wrong. The more time for the economy to unravel, the more time for more sleaze to be uncovered, the more time for accidents to happen.

However, neither party can admit as much. Tony Blair can't say he wants an election on May 3 because he knows he'll win - otherwise he'll be accused of the most damnable opportunism. William Hague can't say he doesn't want the election on May 3 because he knows he'll lose - otherwise he'll be accused of running scared.

Yesterday, though, Mr Hague hit just about the right note. "I think it depends on what happens over the coming week, whether this is getting better or worse," he said.

If, by the last few days of March when Mr Blair's timetable demands an announcement, the epidemic shows no sign of abating and the exclusion zones show no sign of being eased, he will have to give serious thought to abandoning his preferred date.

Although there is a question of a loss of democracy to those isolated on their farms, it is often overstated. Long gone are the days where mass attendance at hustings was the only form of political debate. Most campaigning is done through the television and by direct mailshots and phone calls - which are, by and large, unaffected by foot-and-mouth.

However, for Mr Blair to be concentrating on campaigning while all sectors of the countryside burn, would clearly be wrong.