Blair must a agree EU referendum

TONY Blair will be guilty of the biggest cop out of his premiership if he fails to hold next year's long promised referendum on the proposed European Union constitution – even if the French reject it on May 29.

TONY Blair will be guilty of the biggest cop out of his premiership if he fails to hold next year's long promised referendum on the proposed European Union constitution – even if the French reject it on May 29.

The referendum will be a defining moment in Britain's relations with the EU and what France does should be of no consequence in allowing the British to have their say. Unlikely as it appears at the moment, the Prime Minister might even achieve a `yes' vote if he actually takes the initiative and leads a positive pro-European campaign.

Denis Macshane, Minister for Europe until losing his job in the post-election reshuffle, said a public rejection of the treaty in the UK would be a "huge and mammoth defeat" for Labour.

Macshane believes the Blair government has "missed a trick" by not having an adequate level of basic information campaigning on the constitutional treaty and on Europe generally. "Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s spent £25 million of taxpayers' money on a Government information campaign on Europe," he says with some feeling.

"We haven't really got off the starting blocks in terms of informing the British people. I am amazed at the sheer ignorance, a lot of it fuelled by the anti-European press in our country, about what Europe is and how it works."

East of England Liberal Democrat Euro MP Andrew Duff, who helped draft the constitutional treaty which he claims "reinforces European parliamentary democracy," says there is a legal responsibility to ask the British people to ratify it even if the French say no.

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That's at odds with his party's foreign affairs spokesman at Westminster Sir Menzies Campbell. "The effect of a French veto will be to render the constitutional treaty ineffective. The British public would think it a particular form of political madness to ask them to vote in a referendum whose result would be meaningless in such circumstances."

Most members of the Cabinet agree. They know they're facing defeat and are desperate to squirm their way out of uncomfortable headlines and ridicule from other European states.

Poor old Douglas Alexander, who has not got off to a glowing start as Minister for Europe. He told the Commons this week: "The Prime Minister himself said: `I have always said we will have a vote on the constitution.' It doesn't matter what other countries do; we will have a vote on the constitution."

He was quickly squashed by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who indicated the UK vote would be shelved if France, and possibly the Netherlands, vote `no' at the end of the month.

So that's the first Labour Manifesto commitment to bite the dust, just days after being re-elected – although yesterday it emerged a draft Bill authorising a nationwide vote will be published next week just in case of a French `yes'.

Incidentally, Mr Duff warns that if the constitution is killed off by the French, "Europe will be in deep trouble." Not so if only the British vote `no' because – in what is music to the ears of Eurosceptics – Mr Duff acknowledges "the EU is plausible without Britain.

"A British `no' would put Britain on track either to be forced to accept a second-class, associate membership or to leave the Union altogether. The UK will not be allowed to trigger a renegotiation of the constitution."

Yesterday, the cross-party campaign for a 'No' vote was launched bringing together the business-backed Vote No organisation and the left-of-centre think tank the Centre for a Social Europe.

The group published a specially commissioned ICM opinion poll showing 54% of British voters opposed to the constitution, with only 30% in favour.

The EU countries set to hold referendums on the constitution are: the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, and the UK. The other 16 nations are deciding by votes in their national parliaments and so far MPs in nine of them have agreed ratification.

MICHAEL Howard may have got many things wrong in his political career. But he's certainly firmly on the button when he says: "No-one in the Conservative Party should assume that this next election is going to drop into our lap. No-one should assume that it is a question of one more heave – it is going to require a lot more than that."

Mr Howard, who by signalling his intention to quit sooner rather than later has set off a potentially fratricidal leadership contest, said: "We have got a lot of work to do. We obviously haven't succeeded in really connecting with the electorate as a whole – with their concerns and anxieties and frustrations and their hopes and aspirations and dreams."

Until the independent Boundary Committee finishes its work, it's not yet certain how many parliamentary constituencies will be in place for the next election. But assuming it's the 646 as now, would someone like to tell me just which 126 seats the Tories are going to gain to give them an absolute majority in parliament, and the additional 32 which would give them the same number of seats which Labour has now?

Miracles do happen, of course, but with Scotland, Cornwall, the North East, West & South Yorkshire, the West Midlands, Merseyside and Greater Manchester virtual Tory free zones, it will all but be impossible without the right leader in place.

Suffolk South MP Tim Yeo, a self-proclaimed Tory moderniser, admitted this week his chances of taking over are slim – "I do not regard myself as a strong contender at all."

But while he would seem naturally inclined towards the twice-rejected Kenneth Clarke, he has refused to rule out those young "Notting Hill" set candidates David Cameron and George Osborne.

"What I want to make sure is that those people who call themselves modernisers actually do buy into the idea that the Conservative Party has to change," said Mr Yeo. "A lot of people think `Oh gosh, I'll be clever, I'll call myself a moderniser' but if you scratch under the surface they're still very traditional Tories.'

Whatever happens, the maiden aunts, farmers, retired colonels, City bankers, and the blue rinse brigade who comprise the bulk of the Tories' 330,000 members won't be allowed to choose the leader. The one time they were entrusted with the task, they backed Iain Duncan Smith, who MPs conspired against to kick him out of office 25 months later.

Mr Howard wants to change the rules for electing his successor, so that the final decision rests with MPs – the brief flirtation with party democracy has gone with the wind.

It will be up to party delegates to the annual conference in Blackpool – yes another dreadful week being battered by gales and rain sheeting down off the Irish Sea beckons in October – to endorse any alteration to the election process.

I expect it to be carried on the basis that as party members choose their parliamentary candidates, those who become MPs should be entrusted with the final decision.

But there will be demands for the Tory members to have their say. The most likely scenario is for activists to vote on the would-be leaders, with the MPs deciding the winner in a run-off vote at Westminster from the first and second placed in the membership ballot.

That's different from Labour, where MPs form one third of an electoral collage with activists and the trade union movement also have a third of the say.

HIS friends in Europe have not deserted Bashir Khanbhai, the former Conservative Euro MP for the East of England who was deselected over an alleged expenses irregularity and who is still waiting the outcome of his appeal to the European Parliament's Court of Questors.

Mr Khanbhai has been appointed one of the leading columnists in the Athens-based pan-European English language weekly New Europe.

In the latest issue Mr Khanbhai – recently returned from 10 weeks in India where his wife was born – takes a swipe at the Tories' election mantra of controlled migration.

Writing in praise of a liberal immigration policy, Mr Khanbhai writes: "Many migrants are assigned duties at night, weekends and public holidays – they do jobs that local people are either unwilling or unavailable to undertake."

He adds: "They pay taxes, occupy poorer accommodation and spend a large proportion of their income on services that sustain the local economy.

"Their contribution supports welfare payments and pensions of an ageing population in the country where they work and live.

"Genuine asylum seekers, skilled economic migrants and immigrants who are legally settled or born and bred in their adopted countries should not be portrayed as criminals by either politicians seeking cheap publicity or irresponsible journalists."

That seems to me to be one up for the Tory modernisers.

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