Magazine article The Spectator

Tony Blair Must Call a Referendum, or Britain in Europe Will Collaspe

Magazine article The Spectator

Tony Blair Must Call a Referendum, or Britain in Europe Will Collaspe

Article excerpt

Shortly after the 2001 general election, Charles Clarke, the Labour party chairman, observed that the euro was 'the most important issue facing Labour this parliament'. In private Tony Blair sent out the same message to businessmen, MPs and journalists in the pro-European camp. They were left in no doubt about the Prime Minister's utter determination to take Britain into the single currency. Publicly the Prime Minister made a series of speeches which, while not changing by one jot the technical position surrounding entry imposed on Blair by Gordon Brown in November 1997, were noteworthy for an ever greater euro-enthusiasm.

Most recently there was the leaked memo from Philip Gould, Tony Blair's political consultant, that the euro-referendum was now winnable. Interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, the Prime Minister's sentiments regarding entry to the euro bordered on the fervent. But the polls obstinately refused to move. The working majority in favour of a No vote has reverted to about 25 per cent, close to the three-year moving average. Meanwhile the final practical date to make a decision - reckoned to be Christmas at the very latest, once the heavy burden of legislation needed to prepare the way for entry is taken into account - draws ever closer.

Last week the government seemed to blink. The Times ran a story that the Prime Minister was entertaining the notion of delaying any referendum until after the next election. The story is deniable. But the author of the account, the paper's political editor, Philip Webster, has an admirable track record and excellent sources. Indeed, it was Webster who scooped Fleet Street almost five years ago when, in November 1997, Tony Blair ducked out of holding a referendum for the first time.

The Times's account did its best to put the Prime Minister in a reasonable light. it stressed the difficulties that delay would create for the Tory party by keeping alive the rancorous euro-question through to the 2005 general election. But it is impossible to overstate the dismay and the sense of frustration that the Prime Minister's allies in the pro-euro camp will feel if the government finally does abandon its plans for a referendum in this parliament. In their eyes, such an act would be nothing short of betrayal and a personal humiliation for the Prime Minister. 'I think his place in the archives would be in doubt if he proved himself to be so indecisive and shiny-shallying on this profound issue,' says the LibDem MEP Andrew Duff. One pro-euro Tory, a backer of the all-party Britain in Europe campaign and a former senior member of the Major government, says that `those who in the end feel that Blair is a second-rater with no substance would find themselves vindicated'. There are warnings, too, that Tony Blair will surrender his already slender credit in Brussels if he fails to press ahead. Questioned about the British decision on the euro at a press lunch at the European Commission offices in London on Monday, European Commissioner Michel Barnier went out of his way to emphasise the extra influence which comes with signing up to the single currency.

In Britain it is now certain that the pro-- euro coalition, so painstakingly hammered together by Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair, Kenneth Clarke and others in 1999, will collapse if Tony Blair declines to press on with a referendum in this parliament. The Britain in Europe campaign, the pro-- Europe campaigning body, 'will fold if there is not a referendum in this parliament', says one BIE insider. …

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