Blair says he'd vote 'No' if euro poll was held now

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Tony Blair sought to neutralise the single currency as a general election issue yesterday by declaring that he would vote "No" to Britain joining if a referendum were held now.

Tony Blair sought to neutralise the single currency as a general election issue yesterday by declaring that he would vote "No" to Britain joining if a referendum were held now.

But the Prime Minister's remarks provoked confusion over government policy on the euro. He was forced to clarify his comments and denied giving a vote of no confidence to the currency, which fell to an all-time low this week.

Mr Blair's view emerged when he spoke privately to journalists on his flight from London to South Korea, where he will address a European Union-Asia summit today. "If you come along to me with an opinion poll and said 'do you want to join the euro today', I would say no," he said.

Downing Street, which later said the comments could be made public, confirmed that Mr Blair would also vote "No" if a referendum were held now.

Two hours later Mr Blair tried to end speculation that his line on the euro had changed. Asked whether he was cooling on the single currency, he replied: "Absolutely not. It isn't right for Britain to join the euro at the present time because the economic conditions are not right, but it's absolutely vital for Britain to keep the option of joining the euro open."

In a speech to businessmen in Seoul, Mr Blair restated the Government's policy that it would join if its five economic tests had been met. His spokesman insisted: "There's nothing remotely new or newsworthy in what the Prime Minister said. If asked in an opinion poll 'would you join the euro today', he said 'No', which is the Government's position."

Mr Blair's remarks came as the embryonic "Yes" campaign decided, in the run-up to the election, to scale down its drive to persuade the British public to back entry. The all-party Britain In Europe group will instead focus on a campaign to be launched immediately after the election.

The group has close links with Downing Street, and its tactical retreat is a sign that Mr Blair has adopted the cautious approach of the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

The move will be seen as a setback for three pro-euro ministers - Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary; Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland Secretary; and Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary.

The timing of Mr Blair's remarks was unfortunate for Wim Duisenberg, the president of the European Central Bank. Yesterday he dismissed speculation he would resign after suggesting on Monday that central banks would not intervene further to bolster the euro, which sent the euro plunging. He appeared to have saved his job after promising not to speak about intervention in future.

The Conservatives claimed Mr Blair's remarks were a blatant piece of pre-election "spin". William Hague said: "A crude attempt to persuade the gullible that Britain's most Eurofanatic leader ever is in fact a closet Eurosceptic backfired when Tony Blair had to eat his own words hours after uttering them."

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