Beckett stresses need for single-currency caution

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It became clearer yesterday that a Labour government would not join a single European currency when it is launched in two years' time, as Margaret Beckett, the party's trade and industry spokeswoman, publicly expressed doubts, writes John Rentoul.

In what appeared to be part of a concerted exercise, her comments closely followed the cautious note sounded by Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, at the weekend.

Mrs Beckett said: "The great nightmare for Britain has always been that our economy would not be sufficiently strong for it to be an easy option to choose whether or not to join, depending on what we think of the package when we actually see it."

A spokesman for Tony Blair's office denied that the two interviews were sending a signal. But, although the option of joining the first wave - after a referendum - is technically still open, the message now seems to be that Labour wants to join, but not yet. Mrs Beckett did not deviate from the line that a decision will be made in the UK's economic interest, but emphasised the problems of joining in the first wave.

Speaking as the only shadow cabinet member of Labour's Euro-Safeguards Campaign - its historic anti-European pressure group - Mrs Beckett told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the Government's record made it "unlikely" that the British economy would be strong enough for joining the single currency to be an easy decision. "I think everybody in Europe is worried about the sustainability and the pace of the move towards economic monetary union," she said.

Mr Cook made it clear on Sunday that if Britain stood aside from the launch of the single currency, due on 1 January 1999, a Labour government would want to join as soon as possible thereafter.

The Shadow Cabinet is fairly evenly divided between those who have been historically pro- and anti-Europeans, with the divide now mainly between those who want to postpone entry into a single currency for as short a time as possible, and those who want to "wait and see" for several years.

The "pro-Europeans" are: Mr Blair, Gordon Brown, Donald Dewar, Mo Mowlam, Chris Smith, Ann Taylor, George Robertson, Harriet Harman and Jack Cunningham. The main "antis" are: Mr Cook, John Prescott, David Blunkett, Jack Straw, Frank Dobson, Michael Meacher, and Mrs Beckett, who owed her start in politics to her anti-EEC stance against the Democratic Labour candidate Dick Taverne in 1974.

Earlier this year, 50 Labour backbenchers sponsored "a people's campaign" to say no to a single currency, which they declared would have "disastrous effects" on Britain.