THE WEEK IN POLITICS: All quiet on European front but battle can be delayed no longer

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The Independent Online
EUROPE IS the dog that will not bark at the coming general election. The word was not mentioned in the six pledges Labour trumpeted yesterday; the party does not want the election spotlight anywhere near foreign affairs.

The Tories would love to make Europe an issue but know they can't. Don't expect Michael Howard to warn that people have "10 days to save Britain" from an EU superstate. Mr Blair has again blocked a promising line of attack by matching the Tories' policy - this time by offering a referendum on the European Union constitution. All the Tories can do is feebly offer a referendum a few months earlier.

It is a pity Europe won't feature in the campaign. Elections offer a chance to lure voters into the secret garden of politics. Why not debate a critical decision about Britain's future that is only a year away?

The Prime Minister has always put his pro-European instincts a poor second to his desire to win elections. It works: recently, he has seen that Rupert Murdoch's Sun will continue to shine on Labour at the election because of the referendum pledge.

The great salesman has sold Britain to its European partners and, against the odds, secured real influence in the EU without joining the euro. But he has missed an historic opportunity to sell Europe to wary Britons, one of his key goals in 1997.

Too often, Mr Blair has put off the battle to another day. Wednesday's Commons debate on the Bill allowing the referendum was a low-key affair. MPs knew the real fight would not start until after the election.

But you would be surprised just how much thinking time our leading politicians devote to Europe despite the frenetic pre-election activity. The referendum stalks them like a fast-moving shadow. It is the next war and its consequences for them could be more profound than the election.

For Mr Blair, the danger is that it will offer voters a chance to kick him in the pants without removing a Labour government, a box many people would tick if it were available at the election. He has promised to stand down before the following election, so a referendum defeat would put him under enormous pressure to resign.

Should, some Blair aides wonder, Mr Blair make clear in advance that defeat would not be a resigning matter, thus removing the incentive for voters to make it a referendum on him? Conversely, other advisers ask whether he should declare that he would stand down whatever the result. If he won, he would go out with a bang and the people might even play along.

This would certainly get Gordon Brown on board - the other problem exercising the Blairites, who know that anything less than his 100 per cent support could scupper the Yes campaign. The Chancellor is no longer interested in private deals about the succession. But if Mr Blair had said publicly he would depart after the referendum, he couldn't go back on his word.

The problem is that a re-energised Mr Blair intends to stay longer. He has pencilled in the referendum for May or June next year and rejected Jack Straw's preferred March date, believing it would not provide enough time to turn round public opinion. The Prime Minister now sees securing a permanent transformation in public services as his top third-term priority, which might well take three years rather than one. Europe would again take second place.

Instead, the Blair camp hopes to appeal to Mr Brown's self-interest. "If he took over after a referendum defeat, he would head a broken-backed government," one Blair ally told me. "There would be a crisis in the EU, no time for domestic policies, the Tories would be rejuvenated and Labour seen as on the way out."

Senior officials at the Foreign Office, and even at the more sceptical Treasury, fear a No vote would send Britain towards the exit just when the EU was moving in our direction after rejecting the path marked superstate and opening its doors to eastern Europe. Mandarins fear Britain would become like Norway, a member of the single-market club with no influence whatsoever over its rules.

Pro-Europeans will be accused of scaremongering when they paint such scenarios. Mind you, the Eurosceptic-dominated press has been scaring us about the EU for years. The trump card in the Europhiles' hand is that the consequences of a Yes vote are less scary than a No one. To win, they will need to present the choice as between a benign status quo and a leap in the dark, as Mr Straw began to do this week. The No camp will find it harder to answer the "what happens if you win?" question.

Can the referendum be won? I think it was a mistake to call it and there is a mountain to climb. The Murdoch papers and most others will turn on Mr Blair with a vengeance not seen since they crucified Neil Kinnock. But there is a ray of hope that the "leap into the unknown" argument might just work, and two recent opinion polls have suggested that public opinion is much less hostile to the constitution than previously thought.

To win, Mr Blair will have to make Europe his number one priority immediately after the election. The battle can be postponed no longer. If it is, that now docile European dog will rise from his slumbers, chase Mr Blair and inflict a huge, and possibly fatal, bite.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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