Blair Takes Gamble; GENERAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN LAUNCH HALTED UNTIL TOMORROW BUT PARTIES BEGIN Casino Law at Risk as PM Postpones Naming Poll Day
Byline: JOE MURPHY
TONY Blair's decision to postpone the election announcement has put at risk key legislation, including the controversial Gambling Bill.
The Prime Minister was today running out of time to pass a series of new laws as all three parties went into a 24-hour political truce in honour of the Pope.
He will see the Queen tomorrow morning to name 5 May as polling day and then use a low-key speech in a marginal Labour seat in the South East to announce the campaign formally.
He will plead with voters not to treat the election as a "referendum" on his leadership but as a choice between Labour and Conservative policies for the future.
Mr Blair had planned to fire the starting gun today but decided on Sunday to postpone it as a mark of respect for Pope John Paul II.
The delay cuts a full day off the time left for passing urgent Bills before the Commons is dissolved.
And in a warning shot ahead of three days of intense wrangling between the Government and Opposition, the Conservatives today called for a cut in the number of super casinos contained in the new Gambling Bill, one of several major Bills put at risk by the election dash. Others include the plans for identity cards and moves to outlaw religious hatred.
Ministers are determined to keep the Gambling Bill intact because the creation of gambling resorts is seen as key to the revival of several derelict inner city sites, bringing in [pounds sterling]2billion of inward investment and creating thousands of new jobs.
But the dawn of 24-hour casinos, most of which would be owned by foreign conglomerates, has sparked fears of more people becoming addicted to gambling and has led to lobbying by UK-based firms who say they are being treated unfairly. Other parts of the Bill have all-party backing, including the creation of a Gambling Commission and regulating new forms of gambling, such as internet sites and games advertised by mobile phone text messages.
Conservative shadow culture minister John Whittingdale said: "The big question is whether the Government is prepared to move on the big problem issues or whether it is prepared to lose the Bill. We are in a strong position. This is a major and controversial Bill which has only been debated for four hours or so in the House of Lords.
"We are not prepared to let things through that are not in the public interest."
Conservative sources say they intend to negotiate "hard".
They are in a powerful position to demand concessions because the Government has so little time before the election gets under way and so and the Opposition could "talk out" the any Bill. Of 28 Bills signalled in the Queen's Speech in November, up to half could run out of time.
But The Tories run the risk of a voter backlash if they are seen to wreck measures with that command public support so there are likely to be tense negotiations.
They will decide their position at shadow cabinet will meet later this week as informal talks are expected to be opened between the Government and the Opposition.
A Conservative source said their guiding principle was that controversial Bills that had not been debated properly should not be let through, except in exceptional circumstances. …