THE MT DIARY: Sniffing the political air, our diarist hand-picks the hottest issues of the coming year

The capture of Saddam Hussein just before Christmas gave an air of finality to the last days of 2003. A chapter was successfully closed, a page turned, and 2004 promised to be a new, glad, confident morning for Tony Blair.

by Howard Davies, the director of the London School of Economics
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The capture of Saddam Hussein just before Christmas gave an air of finality to the last days of 2003. A chapter was successfully closed, a page turned, and 2004 promised to be a new, glad, confident morning for Tony Blair.The gladness quotient may not turn out to be as high as he hoped, but certainly the agenda has changed. A diary devoted to the dog days of midwinter is bound to be, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer would say, 'so five minutes ago'. So let us look forward to the stories that will divert us in '04. They may turn out not to be those that preoccupied dinner tables over Christmas.

Some, of course, are obvious. No crystal ball is needed to identify the Hutton report and university top-up fees as the hottest buttons of la rentree. Others are less prominent now, but could cause just as much trouble for the Government.

Until the failure of the Brussels summit, the EU constitution seemed certain to be the big political story of 2004. Tony Blair is determined to avoid a referendum, yet the House of Lords may impose one on him in circumstances that would make defeat highly probable. It does not accept that a brand-new constitution for the EU can be seen, as Peter Hain would have it, as just a bit of 'tidying up'. There's an unholy alliance of principled Liberal Democrats, whipped Tories, cross crossbenchers and eurosceptic Labour peers that can command a clear majority. And a referendum clause added by the Lords would be hard to reverse. The Commons might find it hard to use the Parliament Act to overrule the Lords, when the latter is arguing that the people should be given their say.

As long as the Poles and the Spaniards hold out for retention of the outrageous voting rights conceded to them by an exhausted Chirac in the small hours at Nice, this nemesis can be averted. But there must be a good chance that a nefarious deal will be done on the banks of the Oder, putting the Giscard draft back on the rails and the UK back in the hot seat. The 'red lines' beyond which we are not prepared to see majority voting extended could come back into contention. If they do, watch out for fireworks at Westminster.

Then, in May, come the dreaded Euro elections. Here, the problem is the opposite: how to drum up any interest in them among Labour voters?

Last time around, the field was clear for sceptical Tories and the fringe parties, leaving Labour seriously under-represented in the European Parliament, which has caused more trouble for the Blair agenda in Europe than is generally understood. It could be even worse this time, striking another blow to the Government's authority at a time when it can ill afford one. Michael Howard can look forward to a useful popularity boost in the spring.

After the non-event of the European elections comes the choice of Commissioners. With no new constitution in place, the UK will still have the right to choose two. For Labour, will Peter Mandelson get the nod? Is even Hartlepool safe enough to risk a by-election? For the Conservatives, the question is rather different - whom to despatch to the salt mines of Brussels? Chris Patten is surely the last of the Tory Europhiles. The obvious choice, which would remove an embarrassment for Michael Howard and also please the antis, is Iain Duncan Smith: the office allowance is generous enough. But would Blair be prepared to buy him a one-way ticket on Eurostar?

At home, too, constitutional reform will dominate the agenda. The Government has set itself some tricky tasks.

Just how will the remaining hereditaries be removed from the Lords, as the prime minister says he wants to do? Unlike turkeys, they can see Christmas coming and are making dispositions. The stately homes of England were humming with plots over the shooting season. Few others may wish to support the belted earls directly, but almost every member of the upper house favours a reform different from the one the Government proposes. So stalemate is probable and aggressive whipping will not help.

Life will be no easier when it comes to the legal reforms. A majority of the judicial members of the Lords are against the idea that they should be transferred lock, stock and ermine to a new Supreme Court. Others are concerned about how the new court's independence will be secured. Resistance, however, will be as nothing compared to the fuss there will be about the abolition of QCs, if the Government decides to follow that path, as it has hinted it may. The assembled might of London's Silk on the march from Temple Bar to Whitehall will be as fearsome as the revolt of the baronets in Disraeli's Sybil. Only the thought of all those 'refreshers' foregone may hold them back.

There is material here for a whole new version of Iolanthe - words and music by the Eltons, John and Ben, with a patter role by Charlie Falconer.

So there are elephant traps a-plenty in what is almost certainly the Government's last full year before the general election. With the exception of top-up fees, they are all, oddly, issues of little concern to most Labour activists. That's the wonder of New Labour as it moves into its eighth year.

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