Blair's Political Honeymoon Enters Period of Turbulence

'Old Labour' demands for minimum wage set the scene for prime minister's next 100 days in office.

After enjoying the longest honeymoon in British politics since World War II, Tony Blair is bracing himself for a bumpy phase in his premiership.

Analysts forecast that Prime Minister Blair's "New Labour" government, elected on May 1 with a parliamentary majority, will shortly face insistent demands from "old Labour" trade unions to agree to a legally binding national minimum wage. That, says opposition Conservative Party leader William Hague, is something Britain cannot afford.

In addition Blair may need all his political skill and personal charisma in the coming winter as an ailing health service and a seriously underfunded school system pile up demands on scarce tax resources.

Also, when he returns this weekend from a month-long vacation in Italy and France, the prime minister, who came to office at the head of a tightly disciplined party, will have to deal with the first signs of disunity and public quarreling within senior Labour ranks.

Demands for a minimum hourly wage of 2.42 ($3.84) are high on the agenda of the annual meeting beginning Sept. 8 of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) - the country's umbrella union movement.

Militant union leaders such as Bill Morris, the tough-talking leader of the 800,000-strong Transport and General Workers' Union, have warned Blair that they will accept nothing less than a 4.42 ($7) minimum wage.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, says he will call for big cash injections into British schools, including pay hikes for his members.

Political analyst Michael Gove says Blair has retained personal popularity and a grip on the Labour Party by "adopting something rather close to a presidential style."

In the first days of his premiership, word went out from Blair's office that all ministerial speeches had to be cleared in advance by a member of the prime minister's staff.

He told members of Labour's National Executive, which determines party policy and in the past has been a notoriously fractious body, that he expected them to stick to a line laid out by an inner circle of senior ministers.

Using these techniques, Blair ordered his ministers to act swiftly in a wide range of policy areas.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown surprised London's financial district by telling Bank of England Gov. Eddie George that in the future he had a free hand to set interest rates.

Blair's ministerial team launched a welfare-to-work program aimed at putting at least half a million unemployed young people back in paid employment.

The prime minister threw his weight behind a new effort spearheaded by Northern Ireland Secretary "Mo" Mowlam to relaunch the peace process and gave the green light to government attempts to secure the renewal of the cease-fire which ended in February last year.

Peace talks have resumed.

These and other initiatives, including the offer of a separate parliament for Scotland, with a referendum on Sept. 11, created the image that the Labour government had hit the ground running.

Blair's officials say the prime minister will counterunion demands for a minimum wage with a lower figure, and will stick to his pre-election promise to hold government spending on health and education at current levels for two years.

He is well aware however that although TUC membership has declined in recent years, it still represents 6 million workers in 75 trade unions.

Nor will he have forgotten, as Britain moves out of summer and into the fall, that 18 years ago the country's last Labour government lost power in a political debacle that historians now call the "Winter of Discontent."

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