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Tuesday, August 24, 1999 Published at 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK

UK Politics

Blair sparks by-election row

Robertson: Move to Lords

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair's decision to elevate Defence Secretary George Robertson to the Lords - and spark a Scottish by-election on the opening day of the SNP conference - has led to fresh claims that the he is ready to play fast and loose with democracy for political advantage.

As one disgruntled backbencher declared: "Blair just can't help himself - show him a contest and he has to try and fix it."

And this latest manoeuvre certainly seems to fit with the control freak mentality that grips the government.

New Labour is facing a serious threat from the nationalists in Scotland and is determined to do everything in its power to hang on to Mr Robertson's 16,000 majority in Hamilton South.

Even a slight reduction in Labour's showing will be seized on by the SNP as another sign that Mr Blair is losing his grip in Scotland.

Labour party strategists clearly decided that it would therefore be a great wheeze to hold the by-election on the same day as the nationalists gathered for their annual conference, when their eyes might not be firmly on the ball.

But it is impossible to move the writ for a contest during the parliamentary recess, unless the MP concerned has been made a peer.

That presented no problem for Mr Blair - he simply turned his outgoing defence secretary into Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and announced the by-election would be held on 23 September.

Political comeback

The move also ensures that Mr Robertson can carry on as defence secretary until he takes up his new post as Nato Secretary General in October, so leaving Mr Blair more time to consider the consequent re-shuffle.

It is also rumoured that Mr Robertson wanted a guarantee that he could come back into politics when his four-year term of office expires, and a peerage was the only thing that fitted the bill.

The SNP and the Tories have seized on the decision to lambast Mr Blair for trying to manipulate the political process to give Labour an advantage.

Ann Widdecombe has already described the decision as "anti-democratic, manipulative and dictatorial" and claimed it proves new Labour is "the most manipulative and abusive government regime yet."

The SNP, while clearly angry at the manoeuvre, insist they are in good shape and will give Mr Blair a hard fight.

The poll will be the first major electoral test for all the parties since the creation of the Scottish Parliament which is run by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition headed by First Minister Donald Dewar.

Labour desperately needs to hold onto its majority while the SNP would dearly love to repeat its 1967 sensation when Winnie Ewing seized the seat in a by-election.

She lost it back to Labour in 1970 and boundary changes have made it more difficult territory for the SNP.

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