Tory tactics scuppered on Europe

THE Conservatives who have been demanding a referendum on the proposed European Constitution must be crest-fallen rather than elated at the collapse at the negotiations in Brussels over the weekend.

THE Conservatives who have been demanding a referendum on the proposed European Constitution must be crest-fallen rather than elated at the collapse at the negotiations in Brussels over the weekend.

The Tories were poised to launch a devastating attack on the Government for selling out centuries of British independence and our constitution to the evil Europeans without giving the voters a say.

At a stroke, thanks to Poland, the Tory ploy to snare Tony Blair has been shattered. No constitution was agreed, so there can be no referendum to decide on how the soon-to-be expanded Europe will function. Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw could hardly conceal their delight when the talks broke down because both knew that the demand for a referendum over what ministers insisted was merely "at tidying up exercise with no fundamental implications for the UK" becoming increasingly difficult for the Prime Minister to resist.

Now, miracle of miracles, there is no constitution over which to hold a referendum. It's unlikely to be back on the agenda until well after the next election – possibly during Britain's presidency of the European Union.

"There is no point in rushing this unless there is a basis for agreement," Mr Blair said in Brussels on Saturday. Even though Euro-MPs are demanding a swift relaunch of talks on a constitution to avoid a damaging rift in the European Union, it's not going to happen.

With France and Germany talking about a "two-speed Europe," the European Parliament wants reassurances that the search for a solution will go on.

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In a statement to the House of Commons on Monday, Mr Blair insisted there was still time to come to an agreement over the constitutional treaty, which he said was "necessary to allow enlargement to work effectively."

Cockily, he told MPs: "It was right to take time to find a workable solution rather than to plough on in the hope of an unsatisfactory compromise."

He added: "We must continue to shape the future of Europe in ways that reflect our national interest. We can either be on the touchline shouting our criticism or on the field as an active and successful player."

Tory leader Michael Howard, who had been hoping to make his mark over what until Saturday afternoon he assumed would be the Prime Minister's refusal to hold a referendum, bravely insisted it was only the courage of the Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller that had prevented the Prime Minister from returning with an EU constitution.

But the break down in talks have also removed a key plank in the Conservatives' strategy for next year's European Parliament elections – if the constitution doesn't exist, the Tories can hardly campaign against it.

Coupled with Saddam Hussein's capture on Saturday evening, it meant the Prime Minister was able to find some festive cheer from the onslaught which has beset him during 2003 – the Iraq war and its justification, the suicide of Dr David Kelly, his friendship with President George W. Bush, foundation hospitals, top-up fees, the euro, the EU constitution, and Zimbabwe.

HARWICH, Ipswich, Waveney and Norfolk South-West are among the constituencies in the East of England with the highest number of households suffering pensioner poverty.

Across the six counties of the region, 136,000 households are claiming pension credit – 6.6% of the national total – with an average weekly award of £45.60.

Broken down by constituency, the figures for the EADT circulation area are: Harwich, 4,880 households claiming credit, average weekly award per household, £43.40; Waveney, 4,078, £43.23; Norfolk South-West, 3,668, £42.24; Ipswich, 3,310, £46.55; Suffolk Coastal, 2,961, £43.04; Braintree, 2,900, £43.95; West Suffolk, 2,568, £42.87; Colchester, 2,535, £45.88; Bury St Edmunds, 2,404, £42.98; Suffolk Central & Ipswich North, 2,378, £43.83; Cambridgeshire South-East, 2,369, £44.44; Suffolk South, 2,247, £42.34; Saffron Walden, 2,185, £43.87; Maldon & Chelmsford East, 2,158, £45.03; Essex North, 2,130, £44.39; Chelmsford West, 1,982, £44.60; Brentwood & Ongar, 1,807, £44.45.

WAVENEY'S Labour MP Bob Blizzard asked the Health Secretary to consider offering "financial support" for women to buy sanitary towels. He was told by junior minister Dr Stephen Ladyman that while the Government accepts "without question" that sanitary protection is essential for women's personal hygiene, as they are not for medical use they cannot be provided on the NHS.

"To show the Government's willingness to listen to the views and concerns of women throughout the country, VAT on women's sanitary products was cut to 5% from January 2001," crowed Dr Ladyman.

TRAFALGAR Square is the beating heart of the nation, but who owns it? That was the question posed by Mid Norfolk Conservative MP Keith Simpson this week.

Richard Caborn, Minister of State in the Department of Media, Culture and Sport, in a written reply, told him: "Trafalgar Square is land owned by The Queen in Right of the Crown. It is managed by the Greater London Authority under section 383 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Westminster City Council owns the roads around Trafalgar Square including the pedestrianised area of the North Terrace."

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