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Thursday, May 13, 1999 Published at 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK

UK Politics

Devo sounds PR death knell

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

There is a bitter irony in the fact that the most control-obsessed government ever, with the biggest majority in living memory, has given away so much power.

The full impact of what Tony Blair has done by handing devolution to Scotland and Wales and, more importantly, introducing PR as the voting method, is only just beginning to sink in with many Labour MPs. And the effect is going to be dramatic.

Thanks to PR, Labour failed to win majorities in both new assemblies and is having to scratch around extending the principle of consensus politics.

Not only that, but Mr Blair has seen sacked Labour MP Dennis Canavan elected to the Scottish parliament, humiliating the official Blairite candidate into the bargain.

[ image: Sheridan: Militant spectre]
Sheridan: Militant spectre
And even the spectre of Militant has come back to haunt him in the shape of hard-line Scottish Socialist Party member and poll tax rebel Tommy Sheridan.

As a result, Labour MPs are now openly predicting that any plans to introduce PR for Westminster elections are dead and buried.

Mr Blair was already backing away from his pledge to hold a referendum on PR for Westminster before the next election.

The results of PR in Scotland and Wales have ensured there will be no vote before then, and it is now very likely the entire project will be abandoned.

Only if Labour faces the prospect of becoming a perpetual opposition in England will the principle of PR ever again look attractive.

The prime minister gave a tongue-in-cheek indication of his feelings when asked about the knock-on effects of the elections by Tory backbencher Peter Luff during question time.

"As for the system of election in the United Kingdom, I am still pondering the consequences of my own generosity for his party," he told him.

Meanwhile, some cynics are claiming that Labour always knew this would be the result of introducing PR for the devolution votes and are quite happy that it has sounded the death knell for PR at general elections.

If the Scots and the Welsh ever come to believe that is true, and that they had been used in a grand Labour experiment, they would almost certainly vent their anger in the ballot boxes next time around, quite possibly putting the revitalised nationalists in power in both countries.

Paddy's mystery prizes

Paddy Ashdown rashly bet one journalist that the turnout in the Welsh assembly election would be over 55% and nearer 60%. The wager was a cream bun.

After the lamentable 46% actual turnout, the Liberal Democrats in Wales have gamely agreed to pay up - but with a whole case of cream buns.

I also learn Mr Ashdown has a unique way of getting his staff to go that extra mile, or work that extra hour, for him.

Apparently he offers them "mystery prizes" in return for their efforts. They are certainly a mystery - no-one has actually received one yet.

In the dark

Tony Blair's fan club - officially know as the Parliamentary Labour Party - has always been hugely supportive of the propaganda machine that operates out of Downing Street and the party's HQ at Millbank Tower.

Backbench MPs love the idea of the press being misled and manipulated by quick-witted spin doctors.

[ image: A Labour backbencher]
A Labour backbencher
What is less clear is how happy they were when they learned that same weapon was being turned on themselves.

Maverick backbencher Austin Mitchell has blown the gaffe, suggesting the spin doctors are just as happy misleading their own MPs as they are in wrong-footing the hated press corps.

Writing in the House of Commons magazine, Mr Mitchell gives the following insight into last summer's stories alleging deep divisions between Tony Blair and his Chancellor Gordon Brown which were, of course, dismissed as "garbage" by Downing Street.

"Rumours of rows on the bridge, which we've ignored because our briefings tell us they are journalistic fabrications, suddenly look true as Reshuffle 1 promotes Blairites, demotes Brownites and gets rid of those the party foisted on Tony."

Is this the old theory about treating backbench MPs like mushrooms - keep them in the dark and cover them in manure from time to time.

The 11 o'clock from Brussels

[ image: Campbell: Railing from Brussels]
Campbell: Railing from Brussels
Everyone knows that Tony Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell likes to keep a tight control on the Downing Street propaganda machine.

That has proved particularly difficult of late as he has also been trying to knock the Nato operation - and spokesman Jamie Shea in particular - into shape.

As a result, he has occasionally given the daily, 11 o'clock lobby briefings from Brussels via a telephone link.

But he took things to ridiculous extremes recently when he got caught on public transport and ended up briefing Westminster journalists whilst on a train somewhere in Brussels.


If you have any political gossip or information on what our MPs are up to, e-mail Nick Assinder (all mails will be treated as confidential).

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