Jack Straw: 'We are very comfortable about the referendum on Europe ... the arguments are on our side'

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One question was on Jack Straw's mind after our tour d'horizon covering the Iraqi war, the UN reforms, the European referendum, and the Middle East: what will happen to David Blunkett?

One question was on Jack Straw's mind after our tour d'horizon covering the Iraqi war, the UN reforms, the European referendum, and the Middle East: what will happen to David Blunkett?

The Home Secretary's bitter public battle over his private life has now become a distraction to the most senior members of Tony Blair's government but Mr Straw feels it more than most; he was Mr Blunkett's predecessor at the Home Office and also had to endure a media feeding frenzy when his son was caught with cannabis.

We had turned over the world in the Foreign Secretary's private office, an enormous, ornate room overlooking St James's Park. From these windows in 1914, Lord Grey of Falloden, the Foreign Secretary of the day, is said to have observed: "The lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

The present incumbent enjoys history. He has engaged in a discourse on Trotyskyism through the letters pages of The Independent, helped by the works of Lenin in the Foreign Office library. He also chose the account of the Franco-Prussian war by the historian Michael Howard as his book for his appearance on Desert Island Discs when he was Home Secretary. But he wears the history lightly (he chose a saxophone for his luxury on the island). He has a nervous tick, saying "What?" at the end of sentences, and mischievous grin which is likely to surface at often inappropriate moments.

He is one of five children brought up by a single mother. She was a nursery teacher and his father, Arthur (a conscientious objector who met his wife on a peace march) was an insurance clerk and left when Jack was 10. Jack escaped from the council estate in Loughton, Essex, by winning a scholarship to become a boarder at a direct grant school. He took law at Leeds University and scraped through his finals, having been caught up in the 1960s culture, of rebellion and rock'n'roll.

One of his favourite tunes from the period was California Dreamin by the Mamas and the Papas. He was president of the National Union of Students, went on protests, and wore a kipper tie and Buddy Holly-style glasses, only recently replaced by contact lenses.

He also was imbued in the virtues of British fair play, and has made three citizen's arrests. There would have been four, but one got away. As Home Secretary, he announced the Stephen Lawrence inquiry and introduced legislation against "neighbours from hell".

We started with his forthcoming speech on Europe. Mr Straw has been engaged in a cabinet battle over the timing of the referendum. He wanted a date in early 2006 to be written into the Bill. Was this a hint that he does not believe the Prime Minister's protestations that he will hold the referendum, even if the French say no? Mr Straw told me not to believe everything I read in the newspapers.

The "Essex lad", as he calls himself, will be launching unofficially the positive case for Europe in a keynote speech tomorrow. He shares the scepticism of Gordon Brown, about the euro but, unlike the Chancellor, he is ready to extol the virtues of greater European co-operation.

Mr Brown was attacked for his negative views about Europe at a private breakfast with Tory members of Britain in Europe. Peter Mandelson has told him to stop gloating over the British economy. There is growing despair in the pro-European camp that Tony Blair has left the campaign so late that defeat on a referendum is inevitable.

Sir Stephen Wall, the Prime Minister's former foreign affairs adviser, said the Government had left the field to the "no" campaign. Mr Straw may be the only man in Britain who thinks that the Government can win a "yes" vote in 2006.

"I have a great deal of respect for Sir Stephen but it's not true," said Mr Straw. " We are very comfortable about the referendum because the arguments are all on our side. The politics of this will change after the election. I would be astonished if the Conservatives win, and so would they."

He said politically "it feels like 1987" when Labour, led by Neil Kinnock, went down to a third defeat by Margaret Thatcher. "If they lose, they will start thinking seriously why they lost and why their approach has led to this period of defeat and major loss of influence in British politics. Quite a lot of pro-European Conservatives are ready to make that point.

"Quite a few of the newer-thinking Tories, in their 30s and early 40s, don't bang on about Europe in the way that the leadership does. Michael Ancram [the shadow Foreign Secretary] doesn't believe a word of what he says about Europe. He was passionately in favour of Maastricht..."

Perhaps Mr Straw is hoping the French will vote "no" first, obviating the need for Mr Blair to risk a referendum after the election? No. He remains adamant that an election will be held. And if it is, and the nation votes "no", what then? "We would not be able to sign the treaty. I am not going to go into all the what-ifs, except to say it would be unquestionably not good for the UK."

Would it be "not good" for the PM? "No, because it's a referendum. You put your point of view to people." Would it mean Mr Blair would resign? "I don't think the question arises." He laughs, and we move on to the Middle East, which he visited recently, for the funeral of Yasser Arafat, and for diplomatic discussions with all sides to revive the road-map now with the backing of the re-elected President George Bush, who said he would be prepared to "spend capital" on it.

Britain, Mr Straw says, is ready to offer observers and security support for the Palestinian elections. Two international conferences are required under the road-map. Beyond that, Mr Straw and Mr Blair are also offering London as a venue for a further meeting. This would not be a high-profile peace conference, but a nuts-and-bolts meeting to thrash out the practicalities of a handover to the Palestinians for the day after the Israelis pull out of the occupied land on the West Bank and in Gaza. "There may be a London conference; the meeting we have in mind would not be 'Madrid 3'. This would be a more discreet arrangement to do with the day after in Gaza."

Mrs Straw arrives for an official dinner with the Foreign Secretary and has to get changed in his room. We prepare to part, but I wanted to turn to Iraq before I left. He still addresses the voters on Saturday mornings in the high street from a soapbox, John Major-style, in Blackburn, the seat he inherited from Barbara Castle, his former boss when he was a special adviser.

How does Iraq war and its aftermath go down in Blackburn with its large Muslim population? "It varies," he said. "Most people can see there is a real job to be done and are very proud about the way the British armed forces are working."

Looking back, did he feel he had misled the UN with his presentation, praised by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, of the case against Saddam? "I worked extremely hard to find a peaceful solution. The solution I wanted was a clear consensus in the Security Council to get Saddam to comply by the only means he understood, which was an ultimatum and threat of military action. If we had been able to do that we might have been able to find the truth out without military action."

He calls an assistant to produce the dossier issued by the UN weapons inspection team under Hans Blix on 7 March, 2003. He reads out the lists of weapons Saddam was thought to possess and, by implication, accuses Mr Blix of bad faith.

"If you look through what I said to the Security Council you will see it stood the test of time. On 7 March what I waved at people was the Unmovic working document on unresolved disarmament issues. It was dated 6 March but, oddly, not published by Mr Blix until the security council closed on 7 March. That's a separate story ..."

An interesting one? "Mr Blix saw the 24 September 2002 dossier and offered a series of comments, the main one of which was that it had not gone far enough. He also, by the way, agreed the six tests we were putting to Saddam." You didn't mislead the world on Iraq? I asked him.

"I certainly didn't."


Born Buckhurst Hill, Essex 3 August 1946

Education Brentwood School, Leeds University; Inns of Court School of Law

Family Wife, Alice Perkins, senior civil servant; one son, one daughter

Career President, NUS 1972; called to Bar 1974-77; special adviser to Barbara Castle, Social Security Secretary 1977-79; MP for Blackburn, 1979; Opposition spokesman, 1980-94; shadow Home Secretary 1994-97; Home Secretary 1997-2001; Foreign Secretary 2001-