Threat to Blair's new PR vision

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR'S vision of a new all-powerful centre-left force in British politics could be critically undermined by the views of his senior colleagues including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, according to senior government sources.

The key catalyst for such a new radical movement - the introduction of proportional representation - is said to be opposed by around three-quarters of the cabinet.

Without fundamental electoral reform, Mr Blair would fail to build a lasting alliance with Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, an admirer of the Prime Minster and someone who is keen to redraw the political map.

Although he has made no public statement on the issue, it is understood that one of the leading opponents of PR is Gordon Brown - a fact that could lead to further friction between the occupants of Downing Street. The Chancellor may be keen to give the issue a higher profile, after his influence on government was weakened by last week's ministerial reshuffle.

Other senior politicians with serious reservations about such a voting system are Jack Straw, the Home Secretary; John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister; Frank Dobson, Health Secretary; Margaret Beckett, the Leader of the Commons; Nick Brown, Agriculture minister and Stephen Byers, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Only Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Chris Smith, Culture Secretary and Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary have so far registered any enthusiasm for electoral reform and the latter has seen his influence wane in recent months.

Mr Blair has already said he is "unpersuaded" by the need for a new system for elections. But he appointed Lord Jenkins as chairman of a commission which is reviewing the present first-past-the-post arrangement and alternatives to it.

Lord Jenkins, a founder of the breakaway Social Democratic Party and now a Liberal Democrat peer, is expected by some sources close to the commission to recommend radical change. The issue is likely to surface at both the Trades Union Congress in September and at the annual conference of the Labour Party in October. It is argued that the Jenkins report has been delayed until 26 October so that it would not fan the flames of any revolt among party delegates.

Some ministers might agree to a watered-down version of PR, but that would be unlikely to win the unequivocal support of Mr Ashdown.

Without thorough-going change the Liberal Democrat leader would find it difficult to persuade his party to develop strong links with Labour.

The Prime Minster will come under considerable pressure to back Lord Jenkins, having appointed him to the post as chairman of the commission. Pressure will also be applied by Mr Ashdown who has refused to rule himself out of a cabinet post in a government formed by a new alliance.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer may feel that the issue is something of a burning fuse for the Prime Minster, his close political friend, but great rival.

Apart from scepticism amongst ministers, it may also be difficult to persuade Labour's big union affiliates, who still command 50 per cent of the votes at policy-making conferences. There is some doubt whether local political activists would be comfortable with a liaison with the Liberal Democrats.

Labour pragmatists will also contend that there is little point in forming an alliance with another party at a time when the government has such a substantial majority in the commons.

Steve Richards,

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