Blair launches sneaky attack on his real enemy

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The Independent Online
If the leader writers of the daily press are to be believed, Tony Blair's decision last week to elevate George Robertson to the ranks of the ermine-clad (and thus to call a snap by-election in his Hamilton South constituency) was the sneakiest pre-emptive strike since Pearl Harbor. By calling the poll for 23 September, Labour have timed it to bring what they hope will be bad news - in the form of a drubbing - for the SNP on the second day of the Nats' annual conference.

The papers also alleged that Blair has shown his contempt for the Upper House and Parliament in general by ennobling a man who will spend most of the next few years in the corridors of Nato rather than on the red benches.

Most of the anger is synthetic. It should surprise nobody that the party that can control the date of a by-election will time it to best advantage. Anyway, moving the writ for by-elections at inconvenient times is something of a Nationalist speciality. A dose of their own medicine, argues Labour. And Hamilton South is a seat which the SNP have held in the past. Labour reckon they need all the advantage they can get.

Getting one over the Nats is something of a Labour obsession right now. The SNP is probably the second most important party in UK politics: while the threat from the Tories is two years away at least, the Nationalists can inflict damage on Labour in its heartlands every single day - via the Scottish Parliament.

Tony Blair never much wanted this Celtic parish council anyway. It's a sop to his own Edinburgh fringes, a throwback to John Smith's day, which would have been rather a chore to ditch. Now he's learning how much of a chore it is to keep the damn thing.

Before it was set up, Labour was confident that the Scottish Parliament would hit the SNP where it hurts. Real, if limited, devolution would make Alex "Nat King" Salmond and his soundbite soldiers look stupid as they mouthed off demands for extra powers, while Labour ministers Got Things Done. The powers devolved would be limited but clear cut, so that battles between Westminster and Edinburgh could be avoided. The only foreseeable bone of contention was over the issue of whether the Lockerbie trial could take place in The Hague. Many Scots argued that that decision was a matter of home affairs (crime) - and therefore the purview of Edinburgh - while the Government argued it was foreign affairs (Libya) and therefore Westminster's business. To avoid getting bogged down in this mire, Robin Cook wisely gave permission for a trial in The Hague before the MSPs had a chance to steal his thunder.

But the reality of a Scottish Parliament has been very different from Labour's fond imaginings. Turf wars between London and Edinburgh have broken out over every imaginable issue, leaving the clerks of the new Parliament to spend all their time ascertaining who has jurisdiction over, for example, the voting system for local government or the Scottish Bank clearing system.

In addition to all of that, opposition MSPs are licking their lips at the prospect of outflanking Labour on a host of issues. Without a clear majority, Donald Dewar relies on his Lib Dem coalition partners to Stop The Nats. And so the SNP have a menu of tempting, Lib-friendly issues, which they will use to try to split the coalition. Full freedom of information, an early ban on fox-hunting, PR for councils, extra resources for schools. On any of these issues, Salmond could - and will - try to provoke the Lib Dems in the Scottish Executive into rebellion as they are forced to choose between conscience and coalition expediency.

But the Killer Issue is tuition fees for students. All parties - apart from Labour - are committed to abolishing them. The Lib Dems - just - managed to swallow their pride and accept a review of the system as the price of a share of power. But the review is nearing completion: it takes its last evidence in three weeks and will report before Christmas. Then things could get interesting for Dewar's coalition. Whatever the outcome, Nationalists are confident that tensions on and within the Executive could tear it apart. The first real test of Charles Kennedy's leadership of the Lib Dems could be working out how to keep his party from imploding over the issue.

With all this grief north of the border, it is no surprise that Blair decided on a snap by-election in Hamilton. The best way to trigger that by-election during a recess was to make Robertson a peer. And the Lords are history anyway; so doesn't that answer the allegation of treating the Upper House with contempt?

Not really. Absentee peers are the bane of the upper chamber, and Lord Robertson of Port Ellen is likely to be as rare a sight in the Lords as he is in Port Ellen (the Hebridean town of his birth). In opposition, Labour's valid argument against the hereditaries was bolstered by statistics about indolent Tory peers who never bothered to show up. Now, as desperate hereds try to complete their tie-breaker question ("I deserve to sit in the Parliament of the United Kingdom because ..." in 75 words or less) to justify their existence on the red benches, Labour is sending the message that its own life peers need not bother to show up either. After all, it's only the Lords. Lord Robertson's vacant seat will be kept warm while he's in Brussels. Meanwhile other peers - some of whom may actually bother to show up from time to time - will get the boot.

Seeing Labour treat the upper chamber with such disregard, you might be tempted to think that the Government is planning to bulldoze the whole place. Not so. The Labour party have not suggested that the Lords will be ditched altogether. On the contrary, they are keen to talk up the important role a second chamber could have in New Britain, with "MLs" (that's the name Labour want) analysing Euro legislation properly or acting as a sort of constitutional safety net. But what exactly will happen, and when, is still pretty vague.

The Government has refrained from giving too strong a steer to Lord Wakeham's committee into the future of the Lords, keeping its powder dry until the report comes out in December. Doubtless the committee - like all committees - will come out with a pretty fudge for our second chamber. Part elected, yes. But part nominated, too. A few Anglican bishops can stay, but clerics from other faiths too. Room for more "ordinary folk" - but plenty of room for the committee members and their chums as well.

Even when the Government has got this fudge to work, don't hold your breath waiting for the next stage. They are bound to delay legislation on a new upper chamber. Lords reform has already clogged up this parliamentary session: they won't let that happen again in a hurry.

So, more consultations. A Green Paper? A White Paper? A draft Bill? The options for delay are manifold. We won't see our new second chamber before 2005 at the earliest. Meanwhile, the rump of the Lords will be a comfortable resting place for the 92 hereds who pass the test, and those lifers who bother to turn up to legislate for us.