A Day of Dither, Then Blair Rules out a Euro Vote

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Byline: PAUL EASTHAM

TONY Blair was forced to end 24 hours of official confusion yesterday by irrevocably rejecting a referendum on the draft EU constitution.

After a day of muddle over hints that he might countenance a vote on the historic surrender of British sovereignty, the Premier finally made his categoric statement.

But his declaration - that he would never in any circumstances bow to growing pressure for a vote - came only after a day when Labour's policy seemed as clear as mud.

At first, Mr Blair had tantalisingly left open the option of a poll at the end of an EU summit in Brussels.

Speaking at 10.15am, he appeared to soften his objections to a national ballot, declaring it was merely 'preferable' that the issue should be dealt with by Parliament alone.

But by 1pm he had radically changed his position, ordering his spokesman to pass on a quotation amending his earlier comments.

Journalists were surprised to receive a new statement in which the Premier insisted: 'There will not be a referendum.

'The reason is that the constitution does not fundamentally change the relationship between the UK and the EU.' The confusion began on Thursday with reports that Mr Blair's Europe adviser Sir Stephen Wall had urged him to consider the option of holding a referendum.

Officials at Downing Street were besieged by questions.

Asked if Britain would now hold a vote if it did not get what it wanted in the EU negotiations, the spokesman said this was a fair representation of the position.

Yet in Brussels Mr Blair's two official spokesmen emphatically denied four times that the door was open to a referendum. One said the suggestion was 'rubbish'.

However, when invited to rule out a vote on the BBC yesterday morning, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw declined.

Then came Mr Blair's 10.15am statement, which indicated a radical shift from the blunt 'no' the Government had always given to demands for a referendum.

Insiders said his softer approach could reflect an attempt to take the steam out of growing public demands for a say in the changes looming in Britain's relationship with Europe.

This pressure was shown in a ballot organised by the Daily Mail in June.

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