Blair offers no promises on single currency

Tony Blair yesterday sought to reassure business leaders over the Government's approach to Europe and management of the economy but he failed to give any firm pledges on taking sterling into a single currency at a future point.

The Prime Minister said that Britain would play a constructive role when it takes over the presidency of the European Union next year, by backing moves to complete the single market and enlarge the EU.

But senior industrialists attending a working breakfast in Downing Street failed to hear any firm commitment from the Prime Minister in favour of economic and monetary union. He said the Government was reserving its options on the single currency.

Mr Blair also avoided responding directly to worries about the impact that the strong pound was having on exports and competitiveness, confining himself to a pledge that government policies were designed to create the stable environment in which business could flourish.

Emerging from the breakfast, businessmen were largely positive about their meeting with Mr Blair.

Sir Richard Sykes, chairman of Glaxo Wellcome, said: "The Prime Minister has a very clear understanding of business in this country, what needs to be done both in terms of the infrastructure, the human infrastructure - education, skills, getting the right people into the workplace - and in terms of what we need to be competitive in the world."

Jan Leschly, chief executive of SmithKline Beecham, argued that business wanted a single currency. "From our standpoint, we are very much in favour of a single currency... you just have to do it carefully."

Dr Walter Hasselkus, chairman of the Rover Group, described the atmosphere "as very impressive, very open".

Mr Blair also fleshed out his plans to improve the workings of Whitehall through a job swap scheme between business and the Civil Service.

A new group, headed by Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler and Confederation of British Industry President Sir Colin Marshall, will oversee the development of shorter, more flexible secondments from the civil service into industry, and seconding businessmen into the civil service.