Are you really surprised, Mr Blair?

ALTHOUGH Downing Street acknowledges that Britain's voters would reject the European Constitution if a referendum were held now, it shouldn't be surprised.

ALTHOUGH Downing Street acknowledges that Britain's voters would reject the European Constitution if a referendum were held now, it shouldn't be surprised. There seems little enthusiasm from Tony Blair or anyone else to engage in a meaningful dialogue on anything to do with the EU.

Sir Stephen Wall, who has just completed a stint as Mr Blair's chief adviser on Europe and the EU, bluntly underlined the extent of the task facing the Prime Minister in turning round public opinion. "If you had a referendum today or tomorrow, it would be lost because the case hasn't been made, and the contrary case has been made. That is why we have got to capture some of the high ground.

"In a reasonable and rational way, we have to set out for people that the EU - for all its faults - was founded because people rightly felt after two world wars that we had to find a way of managing the squabbles between rival nations without them going to war. And nobody has yet thought of a better way of doing it. It has worked, and it has worked pretty successfully."

Former Transport Secretary Stephen Byers, a close ally of Mr Blair, has warned the Prime Minister that there is a "serious risk" voters will reject the Constitution in any referendum.

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In a speech in the Ukraine, Mr Byers cautioned that the pro-European camp start as underdogs in the campaign to win the referendum because so many voters regard the EU as "bureaucratic, intrusive, inefficient and out of touch."

He warned the Government that if it is to turn round public opinion it must go out and make the case for Britain taking a lead in shaping Europe's future. And the European Commission must change its ways, recognising that the EU must evolve as an alliance of sovereign nation states rather than "a conspiracy against the British people."

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Fine words. But at the end of the day, it is the Prime Minister who has to take personal responsibility for attempting to obtain a "yes" vote. He may have committed himself to leading an all-party campaign but Mr Blair has go to start speaking up now. It's no use simply ranting against the Eurosceptics - as Sir Patrick says, the contrary case has been put - because the `yes' campaign is in total disarray.

Parliament is expected to debate the constitutional treaty this autumn, and a referendum must be held before the end of 2006, although Downing Street has yet to set out any timetable for the process.

ENLARGEMENT of the European Union by 10 states on May 1 added four million new farmers to the previous seven million in the EU-15. The European Commission's Directorate-General for Agriculture says the EU's utilised agricultural area has increased from 130 million hectares to 166 mh with the pig and dairy sectors dominating production in the new member states.

Farming is big bucks in the 10 accession countries - and so will the cash support being given to it by the EU's taxpayers. A three year rural development programme to help farmers in the Czech Republic, including agri-environmental measures and encouraging early retirement, will cost Brussels 542.8 million euros (£363m), with the Czech taxpayers contributing an additional 137.5 million euros.

A programme of farm modernisation and the introduction of new technology in Cyprus will involve an EU contribution of 74.8 million euros (£49.9m), matched by national funding of 69.08 million euros.

SOUTH Suffolk MP Tim Yeo, the Conservatives' Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment and Transport, has called on the National Audit Office to undertake an independent and thorough audit of the Safety Camera Partnerships which run all speed cameras currently in use throughout the UK.

"There is a widely held suspicion among motorists that some speed cameras are not saving lives and are there to raise money. This claim is strengthened by the fact that despite a massive growth in the number of speed cameras, there has been a 2% rise in road deaths," says Mr Yeo.

"The Safety Camera Partnerships are bureaucracies funded entirely by the proceeds of speed cameras. Last year, two million fines were issued and it has been predicted that this year there could be three million.

"However, until now, it has not been possible to ascertain just how much money is raised from each camera and therefore how much money is being ploughed into the partnerships rather than into improving road safety.

"Conservatives believe that the partnerships should be called upon to provide details of camera revenue to the NAO which can then be compared to road deaths/accidents rates in the vicinity."

THE Labour MP who tried to end hunting with hounds has ridden to the aid of all pensioners in England, whom he believes should get free bus travel. Labour's Michael Foster (Worcester) told the Commons that pensioners in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already had free travel but only 20% of those in England got passes. "It cannot be right that a pensioner in one part of the UK gets a free bus pass and free bus travel while others still have to pay."'

He said it would increase demand for bus travel in rural areas and would encourage operators to provide new services which could be used by other travellers. His Buses (Concessionary Fares) Bill received an unopposed first reading but is unlikely to become law due to lack of parliamentary time.

SIMON Burns (Tory, Chelmsford West) told the Common that Essex's county town was suffering a double postal whammy - it has the ninth worse postal delivery service in England and a significant number of its urban post offices have closed in the past 18 months. "The consultation process is a farce. The Post Office does not want it to work because it is determined to close sub post offices it has identified for closure," claimed Mr Burns.

NORTH Essex Tory Bernard Jenkin MP will be holding an innovative advice bureau for constituents at the Conservative stand at Tendring Show tomorrow. He'll be available from 1.30-2.30pm at the stand. "It's often at this type of relaxed events that people feel confident enough to raise their worries with me and I am always interested to hear their views and offer my assistance," said Mr Jenkin.

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