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Thursday, 20 July, 2000, 15:45 GMT 16:45 UK
Hughes issues Lib-Lab ultimatum

Simon Hughes: Issued an ultimatum to Tony Blair
The Labour-Liberal Democrat cabinet committee should be disbanded if the government fails to set a date for a referendum on voting reform, leading Lib Dem Simon Hughes has said.

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman also warned that his party would not accept the Alternative Vote system - preferred by Prime Minister Tony Blair - as a replacement for the status quo.

Speaking to BBC News Online, Mr Hughes said the parties' shared agenda was "running out" and the Lib Dems should make a "positive decision" on whether to wind up the committee, which has not met this year.

"I think D-day is at the end of this parliamentary year and before the Queen's Speech, and I don't think you can just leave it and drift off from it.

"I think we need to decide do we want it to continue and if so what are we intending to do with it?"

Referendum a 'test issue'

The Lib-Lab cabinet committee was set up by Mr Blair after the last election to discuss the two parties' shared constitutional reform agenda. It has been a running source of controversy within both parties.

Mr Hughes is known to be less enthusiastic about the joint venture than former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown or his successor Charles Kennedy.

The Southwark North & Bermondsey MP also issued an ultimatum to the prime minister to set a date for a referendum on proportional representation for Westminster.

Mr Hughes said the "test issue" of co-operation with the government was electoral reform.

His party would be able to see for sure after Labour's party conference in September whether there would be a referendum before the next election.

If Labour still failed to set a date for the poll it would be "a fundamental breach of commitment" and his party should say: "I'm sorry, we can't do business for the rest of this parliament".

The home affairs spokesman also rejected the Alternative Vote (AV) system favoured by Mr Blair to replace first-past-the-post.

Asked if it was possible the Lib Dems would make a deal to accept AV, which is not proportional, Mr Hughes said: "I don't think it's conceivable".

He warned that the Lib Dem rank and file would not accept it should the leadership seek to back it.

"I don't think the party could deliver AV. And I don't think it would be wise to try."

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