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Tuesday, August 31, 1999 Published at 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK

UK Politics

Blair returns to full workload

Tony and Cherie: The holiday's over

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair has returned home after his summer holiday to face an in-tray overflowing with problems - headed by the crumbling Northern Ireland peace process.

The French and Italian sunshine will soon seem a distant memory as he grapples with the crisis in Ulster, a possible re-shuffle, a crunch by-election and rows over asylum seekers and hunting.

On top of all that he is also heading for trouble at Labour's annual party conference where he is likely to face demands for a new line on the single currency and his relationship with the Liberal Democrats and a backlash over recent poor election showings.

He also has to start work on the Queen's Speech for key pieces of legislation for the next session of Parliament.

The brightest ray of sunshine he has is that the opinion polls still show him way ahead of William Hague and very likely to win the next election.

Sacking demands

The first, and most serious, problem he has to tackle is the future of the Northern Ireland peace deal.

A series of IRA punishment beatings and expulsions have led to Unionist demands for Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam to be sacked.

They claim her decision that the IRA ceasefire was still intact was a major error of judgement which has seen the terrorists using it as an excuse to step up their attacks.

They are threatening to boycott the planned review of the Good Friday Agreement and there have been calls for the prime minister to take personal control of the situation.

Mr Blair is said to have been angered by Dr Mowlam's determination to stay with the job when he planned his recent Cabinet shakeup but he may yet be forced into a second reshuffle.

The prime minister is also facing a brace of by-elections in Hamilton South, in Scotland, and in Wigan. Both should be safe Labour seats and were held with majorities of almost 16,000 and 22,000 respectively at the last election.

Election row

But Hamilton could prove difficult for the party. The sitting MP is Defence Secretary George Robertson who is to become the next secretary general of Nato in November.

[ image: Robertson: Peerage row]
Robertson: Peerage row
Instead of waiting until Mr Robertson took up his post, Mr Blair made him a Lord which allowed the by-election to be called very quickly.

Labour's decision to hold it on the opening day of the conference of the Scottish National Party, which is proving a serious opposition to Labour in Scotland, has caused controversy.

The move has led to claims that the prime minister has abused the democratic process for political advantage and the decision could yet backfire in the poll.

Asylum row

Meanwhile, the Tories are making the most of what they claim is an asylum crisis in Britain and are blaming Labour for the record number of asylum seekers flooding into the country.

The row over Mr Blair's surprise decision to ban fax hunting will also continue to hit the government with the countryside lobby set to stage mass protests, particularly at the Labour party conference in Bournemouth at the end of September.

Meanwhile, Downing Street was emphasising that the Queen's Speech opening the next session of parliament in November will continue New Labour's modernising programme.

A spokesman said the government would be concentrating of the key issues of education, health, crime, transport and the economy.

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