Blair set to shelve vote, throwing his departure plans into disarray

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The prospect of a British referendum on the European constitution was rapidly receding last night. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, would not be drawn on whether the French rejection of the proposed EU Constitution rules out the possibility of holding a similar referendum in Britain.

The prospect of a British referendum on the European constitution was rapidly receding last night. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, would not be drawn on whether the French rejection of the proposed EU Constitution rules out the possibility of holding a similar referendum in Britain.

However, he did not commit the Government to a referendum, leaving open the possibility that it will declare the treaty dead.

Speaking shortly after the "no" result was clear, Mr Straw said the French referendum raised "profound questions" about the future of Europe. "Tonight's result ... probably deserves a period of reflection by all 25 member states."

He told reporters that Britain must respect the French result. "The European Union is a union of democracies, the people of France have just cast their vote on the treaty and voted 'no' by a clear margin. As I said a few weeks ago a 'no' vote by France or any other member state would create a problem for the EU.

"But given the issues in the campaign in France and the apparent scale of the result it is ... more significant than that. Indeed, the result raises profound questions for all of us about the future direction of Europe, about the challenges to us and the rest of the world, about the ability of the European Union to respond to those challenges and the demands of its citizens.

"Britain should and will play a full part in these debates in the months ahead."

The Foreign Secretary repeated Government assurances that the UK will only ratify the constitutional treaty by a referendum of the British people.

Tony Blair will break off from his holiday in Italy today to comment on the French result. He is expected to make a cautious statement for fear of being accused of influencing the outcome of the Dutch referendum on Wednesday. The Dutch are almost certain to also vote "no", probably by an even bigger majority than in France.

Mr Blair had previously said the referendum would go ahead, so long as there was a treaty to vote on. But, in practice, the French result could be a fatal blow to the constitution.

A final decision on Britain's planned referendum is unlikely before the middle of next month, but a Downing Street aide conceded: "A double 'no' would be a very big blow."

A double rejection will have serious ramifications for the Government. Whatever its outcome, a UK referendum was viewed by Labour figures as a natural moment for Mr Blair to step down, with Gordon Brown replacing him.

That would have enabled a contest in the summer, followed by Mr Brown's coronation at Labour's conference in autumn 2006.

The French result also means Britain's presidency of the European Union, which begins in July, will be dominated by the constitution. Mr Blair and Mr Brown had wanted economic reform to be the key issue of the presidency. Instead they will be in charge of picking up the wreckage from the French and Dutch votes.

Ministers are also braced for a backlash from the French government, with Paris likely to resist what it sees as "Anglo-Saxon" reforms to the EU. It may also block British plans for Turkey's admission.

Crucial discussion will take place at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on 16 June. A substantive announcement on the implications for Britain are likely to be delayed until then.

One possibility, and the only hope of keeping alive the chance of a British referendum, is persuading the French and Dutch governments to hold fresh votes.

Liam Fox, the shadow Foreign Secretary, challenged Tony Blair to declare the treaty dead or call a referendum to allow Britain to make its views known.

He said: "It is very clear this treaty does not do what the people of Europe want and I think it should be put to rest right away.

"If our Government make it very clear that they are not going to ratify and this is the end of the process, obviously we won't require a referendum. But if by any means they try to breathe life into this corpse, then we need to have the British people having a say."

Matthew McGregor, of the "no" campaign against British ratification, said: "We're delighted the French have said 'no' ­ the constitution is bad for France, bad for Britain and bad for Europe."

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