Voting Reform: Blair cools on PR after coalition chaos

The new Britain: Ministers angry as negotiations between Labour and Lib Dems are bogged down at eleventh hour
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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR could kill off plans for electoral reform for the Commons because of the disarray since last week's elections under proportional representation to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

As the post-devolution haggling continued last night between Labour and the Liberal Democrats there was growing tension over the Liberal Democrats' demand for the scrapping of tuition fees for university students. Progress was described as "grinding" at best or just "stalemate".

The Prime Minister, who welcomed proposals by Lord Jenkins for electoral reform last autumn, was said by close aides last night to be cooling on the idea. Mr Blair has privately expressed concern about the demands made by the Liberal Democrats in Edinburgh and Cardiff during the horse-trading since last Thursday's elections. "The idea that we cannot form a stable government after winning more than 40 per cent of the vote has certainly been noticed," said a Downing Street source.

An impatient Donald Dewar, the Scottish Secretary, warned that he wanted an agreement before tomorrow's opening session of the new Parliament. "We are making some progress but there are some very real difficulties," he said.

Members will be sworn in this morning and then hold a secret ballot to elect a Presiding Officer, the equivalent of the Commons Speaker. Lord David Steel had been tipped for the job, but his fate may be bound up in the coalition negotiations.

A possible way out of the deadlock emerged, however, in a call by Scottish universities for an independent review of student support in general, rather than a quick decision on fees.

In Wales, Labour abandoned plans for a coalition with the Lib eral Democrats after rejecting the party's demands, in favour of a looser "partnership" deal with other parties.

Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats agreed yesterday to work on a "consensus" basis with Labour in the Cardiff Assembly, butthreatened to provoke embarrassment for the Government by demanding an end to the ban on beef of the bone.

Opinion in the Cabinet has hardened significantly against PR since Labour failed to win overall majority in the new bodies and began talks with the Liberal Democrats, who came fourth in Scotland and Wales. Gordon Brown, who spearheaded Labour's campaign in Scotland, is warning that the row over tuition fees would be "writ large" if Labour formed a coalition with Paddy Ashdown's party at Westminster.

t Labour has appointed a 30-year-old woman as its new general secretary in Wales to rebuild the party after last week's poor showing. Jessica Morden is a former elections officer at Labour's Millbank headquarters in London, which has been accused by Tony Blair's critics of damaging the party's image in Wales by interfering in the running of the Welsh Labour Party.

But Ms Morden has spent most of her working life in Wales and worked as head of organisation for Labour's campaign for last Thursday's assembly elections.

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