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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 November, 2003, 11:48 GMT
Blair set for a troublesome year

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Tony Blair is clearly not looking for an easy life.

He may be only 18 months away from the next general election and, he hopes, an historic third term.

But his programme for the next year is riddled with potential pitfalls - and one possible disaster.

Queen's speech promises a rough ride
There are plenty of troublesome old chestnuts returning to keep the government on its toes - and there are a few new ones thrown in to ensure ministers' lives are even more interesting.

For a start there is the now near-traditional row over fox hunting which has caused Tony Blair more trauma in previous years than he may reasonably have expected.

Plans to abolish the field sport are not included in the Queen's speech, to the dismay of many backbenchers who have, once again, only been promised that it will be "resolved."

But there is the near certainty that, if the government really does intend to bring in a bill at a later stage, it will have to invoke the Parliament Act in order to force through a ban in the face of continuing Lords' opposition.

Elected Lords

There are still those who smell a rat on this one, however, and are not prepared to bet on a ban being law before the next election.

Then there is the other persistent nettle of Lords reform which is to be grasped with a bill to ensure the upper chamber is entirely appointed.

Lords reform still a problem
That is not quite what most Labour backbenchers expected when this promised piece of democratisation was first floated by the prime minister.

The policy will provoke fierce, if probably ultimately ineffective, opposition amongst those who have demanded an elected Lords.

Opponents' suspicions, well founded or otherwise, are that far from reducing the prime minister's power of patronage, it may increase it through the appointments commission.

New measures bound to cause problems include Home Secretary David Blunkett's latest attempts to get tough on failed asylum seekers.

Single currency

Suggestions he may have the children of failed applicants taken into care, if put into practice, would cause a storm of protest.

And there will be continuing, low level opposition to Mr Blunkett's moves towards compulsory ID cards - although most believe that, despite the fact a draft bill is included in the programme, this has been kicked into the long grass.

Despite suspicions it would be left out, there is also a draft bill to pave the way for a vote on British entry to the single European currency, although the betting in Westminster is that it will not happen this side of the next election.

Looming over all these "minor" rows will be the big one on tuition fees.

Chancellor Gordon Brown will reassess his famous five tests next year but all the indications are that, once again, he will decide they have not been met.

But looming over all these "minor" rows will be the big one on tuition fees.

Opposition to Tony Blair's pet project from his own benches is huge and, as far as can be judged, unmoving.

They believe there is a real chance that the government - and in this instance really means Tony Blair - could be defeated in the Commons over this.

Core policy

The recent rebellion over foundation hospitals could pale into relative insignificance compared with the one gathering over tuition fees.

But the prime minister shows absolutely no sign of backing down.

And that sets the scene for some edge-of-the-seat votes in the Commons once the bill is put before MPs.

The prime minister could well do without a defeat on such a core policy so close to a general election and must believe he can persuade his rebellious backbenchers to fall in line.

Blair wants to look to domestic issues
Inevitably, there are some eye catching polices designed to appeal to voters.

Things like ending the chaos of the school run, setting up childrens' trusts - a policy the chancellor has announced at least three times - protecting pensions and further tackling violent crime and anti-social behaviour should all find widespread support.

The overall aim of the programme for the year is to get the debate back onto key domestic issues of day-to-day concern to voters.

That may still prove difficult with the Hutton inquiry set to report in the New Year and the situation in Iraq apparently degenerating.

And the prime minister's life is likely to be made even more troublesome by a Tory party that seems to have woken from its slumber with an aggressive and, so far, effective new leader.

Queen due to unveil Blair's plans
26 Nov 03  |  Politics


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