Jittery start for Blair's swansong

Labour may have been re-elected for an historic third term, but it is distinctly jittery over getting controversial legislation through the Commons. Political Editor Graham Dines assesses the situation.

Labour may have been re-elected for an historic third term, but it is distinctly jittery over getting controversial legislation through the Commons. Political Editor Graham Dines assesses the situation.

TROUBLE'S brewing on the horizon for Tony Blair as the Government yesterday re-introduced the bitterly criticised Bill to introduce compulsory identity cards and a National Identity Register to combat terrorism and benefit fraud.

It was the highlight of the Queen's Speech at the State opening of Parliament and signals the Prime Minister's intention to face off his critics on the backbenches who believe ID cards are an infringement of civil liberties.

There may well be Labour opposition as well to the Asylum and Immigration Bill, which creates a new points-based system for migrants who want to work in the UK, preventing low-skilled immigrants from settling here.


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With the current parliamentary session due to last 18 months, the proposed legislative programme looks like Mr Blair's swansong. The scenario is being written for him to go to Labour's conference in Manchester in October next year to announce that it's time to hand over to a fresh leader to take Labour into the next General Election.

But he's determined to get his own way first on ID cards. The Government's first attempt at introducing the compulsory cards fell during the last session of Parliament before the General Election, but ministers insist there is overwhelming public support for the measure.

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The new Bill establishes a National Identity Register, containing details such as fingerprints of every British citizen.

It will also allow ministers to begin charging an estimated £87 for so-called "biometric" cards which store fingerprint and other details on a tiny microchip.

The details on the card can then be cross-referenced against a national database before the holder can see a doctor or use other public services, such as schools or libraries.

Backbench Labour critics of the proposal have pledged to join opposition parties to vote down the legislation. The defeat of scores of Labour MPs at the election saw off a number of Blair loyalists, including Ivan Henderson in Harwich, who would have voted in favour of the scheme.

In theory, it would take only 34 disaffected left of centre Labour MPs to vote `no' to destroy Mr Blair's majority in the Commons. But in practice, the Prime Minister has a little more breathing space because the five Sinn Fein MPs will not take the oath of allegiance and therefore will not be able to sit or vote in the Commons and the three Northern Ireland SDLP MPs are unlikely to vote against the Government.

With the 70 Liberal Democrat MPs pledged to oppose the scheme, a lot will depend on what the Conservatives decide to do. In the last Parliament, they voted against the measure, although a number of senior Tories concede this was wrong and acknowledge that there is widespread support for such a crackdown among their voters.

Mr Blair is banking on the uncertainty in Conservative ranks during the pending and protracted leadership election to find a replacement for Michael Howard to split the Tories and enable the Bill to pass through the Commons.

The Prime Minister may also face trouble from his own party over the The Immigration and Asylum Bill, which creates a points-based system for migrants who want to work in the UK, preventing low-skilled immigrants from settling here.

According to the Queen's Speech, the Bill will introduce new technology help to "deter and identify" illegal immigrants and facilitate the "global roll-out"' of fingerprinting visa applicants.

Immigration and asylum policy was one of the key election battlegrounds and ministers have adapted the Tories' pledge on immigration by proposing a four-tier points system similar to that operated by Australia, making it easier for highly skilled workers to work in the UK but more difficult for the low-skilled.

The Labour leadership's nerves immediately started to show as it starts to assess how easy this legislation will be to get through the Commons.

Labour Party chairman Ian McCartney, who oversees the party's policy-making process, pleaded with Labour MPs to back the measures.

"After months of hard work, party members are rightly proud to see the policies they developed moving from the pages of our manifesto on to the Statute Book. This is very much a Labour agenda backed by Labour Party members," said Mr McCartney.

"Every part of this legislative programme is rooted in our election manifesto which was agreed unanimously by the party and endorsed by Labour voters in the election.

"It is an ambitious list of measures. Labour Party members and supporters now expect Labour MPs to get on with the job of delivering our election promises."

And in a mass email message distributed by Labour, Mr Blair underlined that the Government has much work to do to meet the aspirations of the electorate.

"The hard work is not over. Our challenge now is to use this historic opportunity (of a third term in government) to continue building a prosperous and fairer country in which all are valued and all can contribute."

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