Don't think you can escape, Tony!

TONY Blair obviously hopes that the next two weeks he is spending in the United States and the Far East will take the spotlight off the domestic turmoil that is still raging at home.

TONY Blair obviously hopes that the next two weeks he is spending in the United States and the Far East will take the spotlight off the domestic turmoil that is still raging at home.

But wherever he goes, the question of Iraq and its mysterious lack of weapons of mass destruction will not be far away.

The Democrats in the United States – the natural allies of the British Labour Party – are stepping up their attacks on President Bush. Why, they are asking, if there were no weapons ,was it necessary to go so hastily to war?

It's the same question critics of Mr Blair are asking at home. By holding George Bush's hand in Washington this week, the issue will remain in headlines all around the globe.

In the Commons on Wednesday, the Prime Minister accused Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith – who backed the war – of now being opportunistic in challenging the so-called dodgy dossiers. I suspect Mr Blair won't brand his mates in the Democrat Party with such a charge.

Mr Blair's visits to Japan, China, and South Korea are intended to boost trade but his host governments are all still deeply suspicious over the motives of why the UK and US embarked on war. They'll raise the issue, much to the exasperation of the Prime Minister.

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On their return, the Prime Minister and Cherie will pick up the kids and head for Sir Cliff Richard's £3million villa in Barbados. But he would be sadly deluding himself if he thinks that once political life returns in September, the issues he left behind won't flare up again.

Many major domestic issues remain unresolved. One is the proposed Europeans constitution, the opposition to which is not just confined to the Tory and UK Independence Parties.

A high-powered Labour back-bench campaign for a referendum on the proposed "profound" changes in the EU constitution has just been launched. A group of some 30 MPs from all wings of the Labour Party, including a handful of ex-ministers, want the Prime Minister to allow the matter to go before the British people.

And they rejected the view of Peter Hain, the former Europe Minister, that the proposals were no more than a "tidying-up exercise.".

John Cryer, MP for Hornchurch, and a promoter of the group, Labour For A Referendum, said: "The profound constitutional changes contained in the draft EU constitution make it necessary to consult the British people in a referendum.

"Nor can you argue that there should be a referendum on the euro and not one on the constitution."

Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): "There is no evidence that the UK people wish to have this constitutional change. And any change of this magnitude must be put before the people."

MEANWHILE, the Conservatives have nailed one of the Prime Minister's constant taunts – that Iain Duncan Smith wants to pull the UK out of the EU – firmly on the head.

In a speech in Prague, he was adamant. "The Conservative Party does not want to leave the European Union. We want to make it work. Anyone who says differently is telling a lie.

"The truth is we are as committed to building a new Europe of sovereign democracies as we are opposed to a United States of Europe.

"The existing institutions of the EU are not meeting today's challenges. Its centralised structures represent a costly and ineffective compromise between the supranational and the intergovernmental."

THE fast moving events in the battle for control of the region's railway franchise have somewhat overtaken last Friday's Commons debate on just why FirstGroup, operators of Great Eastern, pulled back from the brink of a legal challenge after being denied the opportunity to apply for the licence.

The matter was raised by Colchester Liberal Democrat Bob Russell, who not unreasonably spoke up for the thousands of Essex commuters who had voiced their concern that Great Eastern, doing a reasonable job, had been discriminated against by the Strategic Railway Authority in being excluded from bid process.

Sadly for Mr Russell and its other cheerleaders, FirstGroup – having won the first argument in its battle for a judicial review – suddenly withdrew from the war. "Quite simply, the SRA has told the parent company for First Great Eastern, FirstGroup plc, that if it drops its case for the Greater Anglia franchise, the SRA will ensure that the company is treated favourably in regard to franchises elsewhere," alleged the MP.

"What we do not know is how the stitch-up was engineered. Was there a simple phone call, a private meeting at a discreet venue, perhaps over lunch, a nod and a wink?"

It was this suggestion that infuriated the minister. "To speak of half-truths, innuendoes, stitch-up, companies being shafted, nudge-nudge, wink-wink and the SRA telling FirstGroup what it may or may not get elsewhere, is frivolous beyond belief."

The stinging rebuke, which deputy speaker Sir Alan Haselhurst (Conservative, Saffron Walden) did nothing to stop, looks stark on the written pages of Hansard. What the official report does not record is that Mr Russell just sat there in his seat and laughed at the minister.

"He has a pathological hatred of Liberal Democrats," said the Colchester MP afterwards. "He demeaned himself. When he lost his temper, it showed he had lost the argument."

The real reason FirstGroup withdrew was made clear this week – it has made a bid for Anglia Railways' parent company GB Railways and could well end up running East Anglia's railways after all if GB – still in the bidding process – wins the franchise.

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