Poll warning for Blair on euro strategy

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TONY BLAIR'S strategy for winning the British people's support for joining the single currency may increase hostility to the European Union, according to a new opinion poll.

Mr Blair plans to present the public with a choice between joining the euro and leaving the EU, as he believes people would then swing behind the new currency.

During last month's European election campaign, Mr Blair told Conservative leader, William Hague: "The true question is: In or out of Europe?" He said the choice for Britain was between "leading Europe" under Labour or leaving it under the Tories. The Prime Minister's tactics are questioned in an ICM poll for Business for Sterling, which opposes British membership of the single currency.

The survey of 1,200 people suggested that, faced with a straight choice between signing up to the euro and withdrawing from the EU, many voters would opt for the latter.

The most popular policy was the status quo - staying in the EU but keeping the pound. Fifty eight per cent of people say this would be "the best policy for Britain" while 21 per cent want to join the euro and 14 per cent want to quit the EU.

When status quo supporters were asked to choose between single currency entry and leaving the EU, 45 per cent would withdraw while only 37 per cent would sign up to the euro.

Among all questioned, there is only a narrow five-point majority for single-currency membership rather than pulling out, if these were the only two options. Thirty eight per cent would rather leave the union, while 43 per cent would sign up to the euro.

Nick Herbert, chief executive of Business for Sterling, said the poll illustrated the dangers of Mr Blair's campaign to polarise the single currency debate. "Offering the British public a false choice has the grave danger of backfiring," he warned. "The danger is that it will build up anti-EU sentiment in this country." The group opposes the euro, but its business backers overwhelmingly support staying in the EU.

Janet Bush, director of the New Europe group, founded by Lord Owen, the former foreign secretary, joined Business for Sterling in urging Mr Blair to rethink his tactics. "A `no' vote in the single currency should not be construed as a `no' vote to Europe," she said.

Rodney Leach, the chairman of Business for Sterling, told a conference in the City of London yesterday that Britain was now approaching the highwater mark of public tolerance for EU integration. He criticised the "extremist option" of telling people in Britain that they must either be wholly in or wholly out of Europe.

One adviser to Mr Blair admitted the poll findings were gloomy but insisted that public opinion could be won round.

He said:"You cannot be half-in and half-out of Europe. We are not presenting a false choice. The logical consequence of the Tories' position is to leave Europe."

The Britain in Europe group, backed by Mr Blair, has delayed its launch from this month to October following the Tory European election success. The group will campaign for a `yes' vote in the referendum on the single currency.