Referendum dangers for Blair and Howard

Tony Blair is preparing to call the Tories' bluff and hold a referendum on the European Constitution. Political Editor Graham Dines assesses the consequences for both the Prime Minister and Michael Howard.

Tony Blair is preparing to call the Tories' bluff and hold a referendum on the European Constitution. Political Editor Graham Dines assesses the consequences for both the Prime Minister and Michael Howard.

AFTER a year of saying the proposed European Constitution was of no particular matter and a mere tidying up exercise, Tony Blair has suddenly capitulated to demands lead by the Conservatives for a referendum on whether Britain should accept the document.

The change of heart has knocked away the central plank of the Tories' strategy for the European Parliament elections in June, which was to demand a nationwide vote and contrast the Government's refusal with the plebiscites held over devolution.

The Constitution was set to overshadow the June 10 elections for the Parliament and could have seen Labour lose heavily to anti-Constitution parties.

The Conservatives, along with the UK Independence Party, the Greens, and the far-right British National Party oppose the constitution and want to scupper it. They wanted a referendum because the opinion polls show that the voters overwhelmingly reject the document.

The Liberal Democrats support the Constitution but believe it needs democratic legitimacy through a referendum.

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Until this weekend, Labour backed the Constitution but said a referendum was not necessary.

By acceding to demands for a vote, the Prime Minister has calculated that he can marginalise the Conservatives because they'll have nothing left to whinge about.

The Foreign Secretary Jack Straw - who with the Chancellor Gordon Brown is said to have been telling the Prime Minister that the momentum for a poll is unstoppable - had been expected to inform MPs today that the vote will take place after the General Election. However, in a last minute change, Mr Blair will make the statement.

The Constitutional Treaty as it is known in Eurospeak, is likely to be approved by Europe's heads of government in June after some last minute horse trading, but it will not be published in a translated, and legal, form until October or November.

It has to be ratified by all 25 nations of the newly enlarged European Union. Just one country voting `no' will be enough to stop it dead in the water.

Mr Straw is expected to announce today that the Treaty will be sent to Parliament for ratification this winter, to be scrutinised line-by-line on the floor of the House of Commons and then in the House of Lords.

That process couldn't possibly be completed before the summer of next year - and given the Prime Minister favours an election in May 2005, the likely course of action is that whichever party wins the election will publish a Bill authorising a referendum in the first Queen's Speech of the new Parliament.

The Conservatives are pressing for a referendum vote this autumn. Opposition leader Michael Howard said yesterday: "Why should Parliament spend months arguing about the constitution when the verdict of the electorate in a referendum might be `no.'"

And risking a `no' vote is the biggest gamble of the Prime Minister's career and which is why he will hold out for a nationwide vote until after the election.

Losing a referendum would be fatal blow to his premiership. He would probably have to resign.

Putting the Constitution onto the back burner until the autumn of 2005 or spring of 2006 would allow Tony Blair to try to win an historic third Labour election victory.

If he then won the referendum vote, he could go out on a high. If he lost, the damage to Labour would not be irrevocable as his successor would have the best part of four years to rebuild the party.

A referendum `yes' campaign will be across the political divide, headed by Tony Blair, Tory former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.

The hope will be that the UK's natural Euroscepticism can be overcome and that the electorate will put their its in Britain playing a full and proper part in the future of Europe.

Early Constitution proposals contained plans for changing the EU's name to United States of Europe. Britain was instrumental in having the wording removed but this convinced many sceptics that there was a genuine threat from a hardcore federalist minority determined to use the "tidying up" exercise as an opportunity to push the federal dream.

Opponents of the proposed Constitution are not all on the right of British politics. Veteran Labour campaigner Tony Benn will be in the `no' camp. "The new Constitution will affect our democratic right to choose and remove those who make the laws under which we governed."

Although the Conservatives have got what they wanted, they must now face up to the prospect of pursing a European election campaign which they had banked on being a verdict on the Government's refusal to hold a referendum.

Tony Blair's change of heart has come at the worst possible time for the Tories. Their campaign literature is in the process of being printed - it's now back to the drawing board.

In 1999, the last time Euro MPs were elected, the Conservative mantra slogan was "In Europe, not run by Europe." When Michael Howard launches the Tories' campaign next week in Manchester, the wording of this year's slogan will be vaguely familiar.

"Live and let live. Flourish and let flourish," Howard will say. "That is a modern and mature approach - one which will allow Europe to succeed in the 21st century."

Draft European Constitution: English text

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