Blair rules out another poll if Britain rejects Europe

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Tony Blair said yesterday that he would not call an immediate second referendum on Europe if the British people throw out the proposed EU constitution in the vote expected next year.

Tony Blair said yesterday that he would not call an immediate second referendum on Europe if the British people throw out the proposed EU constitution in the vote expected next year.

At his monthly press conference, the Prime Minister suggested that a "no" vote would mean "no" as he sought to clear up the confusion over what would happen if Britons rejected the constitution.

On Wednesday, he had hinted in the Commons that he would follow the example of Ireland, which held a second referendum in 2002, 16 months after its people rejected the Nice treaty.

Mr Blair said: "What you cannot do is have a situation where you get a rejection of the treaty and bring it back with a few amendments and say, 'Have another go'. You cannot do that."

He added: "If the British people vote 'no', they vote 'no'. You can't then start bringing it back until they vote 'yes'. Once the British people make their decision they make their decision."

After a "no" vote, he would discuss the way forward with EU leaders, in contrast to the Tories who, he said, would leave Britain isolated by blocking the EU treaty.

Mr Blair said: "It would certainly be serious, wouldn't it, to lose it. It would be a serious situation for the country, and of course for the Government and Prime Minister." He refused to speculate whether he would resign.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, told BBC Radio 4, that a second referendum could happen if "what the British public were objecting to was not the principle of this but particular things in it, and there was an opportunity for a renegotiation". Downing Street refused to rule out a second vote and Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, claimed government policy was in "complete chaos". He added: "On one day the Prime Minister says he would consult the people again following a 'no' vote, the next he says he won't. He must say once and for all, as we have, whether he will accept the outcome of the referendum."

Explaining his U-turn on a referendum, Mr Blair said: "I have not changed my mind on Europe, or the benefits of this new treaty, those positions are completely unchanged. What I have changed my mind on is that there is no point in continuing to have an argument about whether we are giving people a say ... let's clear it all out of the way and have a debate on the substance.

"If you believe in what you are doing, and I do believe in it, and you believe in Britain's central place in Europe, it is time to make that argument. We haven't succeeded in that argument and we are going to have to put it up to the people and accept their verdict."

The Prime Minister appealed to pro-European Tories such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, who have criticised his decision, to join his campaign. Mr Blair said: "If the consequence of that was that the British people thought that in the end they were being tricked into something they didn't agree with, that would have done huge damage to the European case in my view."

But Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister and a close Blair ally, declined to endorse the referendum.

Speaking to the Dudley North Constituency Labour Party, he said: "The Prime Minister has said battle should be joined. That we should get behind the treaty and make the case for it. It is the job of the whole of the Labour Party and Government to follow him."

Mr Mandelson said a "no" vote would put Britain "out of the game altogether" as far as Europe was concerned. He said: "In that situation, the political reality is that we would have no alternative but to allow the other 24 EU nations to go ahead without us."

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