Blair facing troubled times

Tony Blair returned to work yesterday at the start of a tough year. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the headaches facing the Prime Minister.AS the decorations, tinsel and Christmas tree are removed from Downing Street, there is no prospect of lasting festive spirit being shown to Tony Blair.

Tony Blair returned to work yesterday at the start of a tough year. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the headaches facing the Prime Minister.

AS the decorations, tinsel and Christmas tree are removed from Downing Street, there is no prospect of lasting festive spirit being shown to Tony Blair.

He returned from his Red Sea holiday via a visit to British troops stationed in Basra with two immediate hurdles to negotiate - the imminent publication of Lord Hutton's report into the death of Government scientist David Kelly and the prospect of humiliating defeat over the Prime Minister's flagship plans for university tuition fees.

Tony Blair is still convinced that he committed troops to Iraq to topple an evil dictator and to make the world a safer place without Saddam Hussein. But the doubts still linger among the war's opponents - due in the most part to the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction, the pretext given to Parliament and the nation for military intervention.

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Mr Blair's policy on Iraq will once again come under massive public scrutiny when Lord Hutton next week publishes his findings on the event leading to Dr Kelly's suicide last July.

The report is expected to be critical of the Government's handling of Dr Kelly after he admitted being the source of a BBC story suggesting the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was exaggerated to bolster the case for war.

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The Prime Minister own future could be jeopardised if the law lord points the finger of blame for authorising the identification of the weapons expert directly at him.

Yet Lord Hutton is unlikely to pass judgement on how Mr Blair's government used intelligence in the run-up to war to claim Saddam had WMD in the run-up to war. And that will lead to renewed demands from Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy for a full, judicial inquiry, with evidence taken under oath.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy - whose severe doubts over the justification for war already seen him clash with the Prime Minister - won't be silenced by Lord Hutton's report.

"I think that probably the Prime Minister will emerge from the outcome of the Hutton Inquiry still in his position, but I think that his political credibility will be damaged as a result of that and other things," Mr Kennedy said.

"I think the argument will be re-engaged about a proper independent inquiry about why on earth we ever got into the war on that basis."

The report is certain to put the spotlight back on the failure, eight months after US President George Bush declared major combat over, to find WMD in Iraq.

For Mr Kennedy, the report will present him with the best opportunity to re-establish his party as a credible opposition since the Conservatives grabbed the initiative by sacking Iain Duncan Smith and replacing him with Michael Howard at the beginning of November.

While Mr Howard has given the Tory Party positive headlines once again and the will to fight after 10 years in the Doldrums, the public clearly still has some doubts on the future direction of the Conservatives.

Michael Howard may have less than 18 months before the next election to convince voters. Tonight he gives a reception for the media at Conservative Central Office, buoyed by the success of and positive response to his "I believe" advert placed in The Times last Friday.

Mr Blair's job suddenly became a whole lot more difficult when the street-wise Mr Howard replaced the hapless Duncan Smith as opposition leader. The Prime Minister knows he does have a fight on his hands.

That fight is not only with the Conservatives and, to a less degree, the Liberal Democrats. A massive rebellion by Labour backbench MPs over higher education funding shows no sign of diminishing with former Government Chief Whip Nick Brown warning he will not support the Government unless provisions to allow different universities to charge students varying amounts are dropped.

The number of MPs who have signed as a Parliamentary motion denouncing the plans has reached 159. They fear the scheme would create a two-tier system, with youngsters from poorer backgrounds being priced out of elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge.

Even though Education Secretary Charles Clarke is expected to offer some sweeteners to the rebels tomorrow when he publishes the Bill - concessions may include enhanced grants and loans for students from low-income families and possibly a national bursary scheme - variable fees will remain the cornerstone of the proposals.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will vote against the plan, and if they are joined by a substantial proportion of Labour MPs in the `no' lobby later this month, Mr Blair could suffer his first defeat on a Government Bill since becoming Prime Minister.

Even worse, he may scrape home on the backs of compliant Scottish Labour MPs voting `yes' even though the legislation does no apply to Scotland's universities.

It was only the votes to his loyalists north of the border that allowed Mr Blair to carry the foundation hospitals proposals, another policy that because of devolution did not apply to Scotland.

In June, the battered Prime Minister has to rally the Labour Party to fight elections for local councils in England - including Ipswich, Colchester and Waveney - the Scottish Parliament, the Mayoral and Assembly contests in London, and the European Parliament.

As the opinion polls show Tony Blair's one time invincibility under threat, the elections are expected to produce the worst set of results since he swept to power in May 1997.

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