Politics: Hague focuses on `safe' pound issue

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR sought yesterday to prevent Thursday's elections to the European Parliament becoming a referendum on his plans to take Britain into the single currency. But the Tories stepped up their efforts to scupper Mr Blair's plans by keeping the euro at the forefront of their campaign. Today they will unveil a poster saying: "The pound is only safe with the Conservatives."

Ministers admit privately that a strong performance by the Tories would make it harder for Mr Blair to win public support for joining the euro. But speaking on BBC television, Mr Blair said the single currency should not affect this week's elections. "We're not suggesting we have a referendum today," he said. He insisted the choice facing the voters was clear, and that Labour wanted to play a constructive part in Europe.

The Prime Minister admitted that monetary union was "a political idea" but stressed that Labour would only join what was an economic union if this was right for Britain's economy.

Francis Maude, the Shadow Chancellor, said many people on the continent believed that political union was "the whole point" of entering the single currency. "That does strengthen our caution and makes us think that Tony Blair is off his rocker to be wanting to railroad Britain in this way into something of this sort," said Mr Maude. He added: "If it turns out that the single currency does tend to lead to political union, we wouldn't contemplate joining it."

Labour and the Tories will today appeal to supporters of each other's party as a lacklustre campaign for Thursday's elections enters its final lap.

Mr Hague will seek to win back traditional Tory voters by highlighting the threat to the pound. Although the Tories have set the agenda, Labour's private polling suggests Mr Blair's claim to be "leading Europe" while Mr Hague wants to be "leaving Europe" has played well. Today Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary, will appeal for "mainstream Conservatives who want a constructive approach to Europe to back Labour".

Tory strategists fear the peace settlement in Kosovo will boost Mr Blair's prospects. Labour will not seek to exploit the deal directly and party officials doubt the Kosovo settlement will lure many apathetic voters out of their armchairs. They expect a turnout of between 25 and 30 per cent. Labour has highlighted its record on domestic issues and has appeared reluctant to talk about Europe. One Labour Euro MP dubbed the party's efforts "the incredible shrinking campaign." "The voters are just not interested in Europe," a Cabinet minister said yesterday.