Blair argues for poll on single currency

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Political Correspondent

A Labour manifesto commitment to a referendum on a European single currency moved much closer yesterday, as Tony Blair declared that there was a "very strong case" for the British people to be given the final say.

While falling just short of an absolute pledge, the Labour leader said: "I don't believe myself that a step of such enormous importance could be properly undertaken unless the people have a chance to make their views clear. I think that our position ... is that there should be the political consent necessary for such a big step".

The remarks, in a BBC1 Breakfast with Frost interview, will spur Tory supporters of a plebiscite to step up pressure on John Major to convince Cabinet opponents, and principally Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, to rally behind a firm promise from the Government.

Meanwhile, in the latest round of the battle of ideas over the remit of the "stakeholder" economy, Mr Blair re-emphasised that tackling welfare dependency and unemployment, not a return to corporatism, would be the priority of a future Labour government.

Conceding in the process that the stakeholder theme was more a new "slogan", or a "change of culture" , than a new policy, Mr Blair insisted that successful firms were treating themselves as stake-holding enterprises.

"They're saying 'how do we treat employees as partners, rather than simply as factors of production'," he said.

In a counter-attack to last week's claims by Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Blair insisted: "Let me make it clear, I've got no intention of tying companies up in red-tape, bureaucracy and regulation."

He declared in the time- honoured phrase that, as of yesterday, he had "no plans" for a 50-per- cent tax-rate for the higher paid, while for ordinary taxpayers he wanted to "try and get their tax burden down".

But speaking on the eve of today's Second Reading of the Finance Bill to implement November's Budget, Michael Jack, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, challenged Labour over its intention to abstain on tax cuts for 26 million people. "The party of opposition has become the party of abstention," Mr Jack mocked.

Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, attacked Mr Blair's defence of the stakeholding theme as the "greatest example of inadequate memory that I've seen from a senior politician in a long time."

The Labour Party was already committed to introducing new burdens on industry such as the European Social Chapter and the minimum wage, he said.