SNP furious at Robertson by-election

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR was last night accused of abusing the peerage system after elevating George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, to the House of Lords, thereby forcing an early by-election in Scotland and catch the Scottish National Party off guard.

The Prime Minister's decision to give Mr Robertson a peerage on his promotion from Defence Secretary to Secretary General of Nato has enabled Labour to force a snap by-election in his Scottish seat on 23 September. That is the first day of the SNP's annual conference, and limits the party's scope for mounting an effective campaign for the constituency.

Labour has also called a by-election on the same day in Wigan for the vacancy caused by the recent death of Roger Stott, the well-liked Labour backbencher and former Northern Ireland spokesman.

Michael Ancram, the chairman of the Conservative Party, said: "This is a clear abuse of the peerage and exposes Tony Blair as a cynical opportunist." The Labour Party denied SNP claims that it was "running scared" of the by-election, but it admitted that the move would give Labour the edge in the battle for the seat, where Labour has a majority of 15,878.

Awarding a peerage to Mr Robertson allowed him to avoid having to wait for the Commons to return in October from its long summer break before stepping down as an MP. It will also keep him in the Cabinet until the Prime Minister decides on another Cabinet reshuffle.

Labour has adopted a local candidate to fight the seat, and cited a precedent in the Tories' elevation to a peerage of David Waddington to become Leader of the Lords in 1991.

John Reid, the recently-appointed Scottish Secretary, who is the leading candidate for Lord Robertson's defence portfolio, insisted that the SNP was "divided and disrupted" and that Labour's move might unite them. "The by-election should be for the convenience of the people of Scotland. To say they should wait several months, to hold it in the depths of winter, seems to me to put the whole process of democracy back to front," Mr Reid said.

Mr Robertson, who takes the title of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, a village in the Hebridean island of Islay where he was born, will not be taking the Labour whip during his time as Secretary General of Nato.

Party sources said giving him the peerage would "retain his talents" at Westminster, but it could raise suspicions that it will also help Mr Blair to retain some influence over Lord Robertson, who could be an important asset for British foreign and defence policy in Nato.

As the row over the Prime Minister's move intensified, Lord Robertson went flat-hunting in London to replace the grace-and-favour apartment he enjoys at the Old Admiralty building in Whitehall, which he will lose when he steps down as Defence Secretary.