Blair to fight for 'yes' vote on Europe

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Tony Blair will take the biggest gamble of his premiership today by committing the Government to fight for a "yes" vote in the referendum on the European constitution.

Tony Blair will take the biggest gamble of his premiership today by committing the Government to fight for a "yes" vote in the referendum on the European constitution.

Some Labour candidates said they suspected that the Prime Minister's determination to go ahead with the referendum regardless of the French referendum result at the end of next month could be Mr Blair's exit strategy.

"If he loses the referendum, he will have to go," said one former Labour MP. "And if he wins, he will leave on a high."

Mr Blair said he would serve a full term before stepping down, but if he goes ahead with a referendum in 2006, he could go within 18 months of a general election victory.

Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, said he believed Mr Blair would go "sooner rather than later" because power was clearly shifting to Gordon Brown.

Mr Cook said he had been told by a Blair aide that after the election Mr Blair would order the removal vans for Mr Brown to leave the Treasury. But as the campaign has unfolded Mr Brown has become more important to Mr Blair's survival. "Some day, that removal van will appear outside the Treasury. But the irony is that it will be there to shift Brown's files into No 10, Mr Cook said in the London Evening Standard. "The first week of the election campaign suggests that day may come sooner rather than later."

The manifesto to be unveiled today will tie the hands of the whole Government, including all cabinet ministers and lower ranking ministers, to campaign for a "yes" vote.

The refusal to allow ministers a free vote has caused a row, and would lead to sackings if any ministers broke the line to campaign for a "no" vote.

Some Labour figures have objected, pointing out that Harold Wilson allowed his ministers a free vote when he called the referendum on Britain's entry into Europe.

But the wording of the manifesto means that ministers could be sacked for opposing the constitution in the referendum campaign. "The manifesto does contain a commitment which is binding on the Government," said a senior Labour figure. "It makes it clear that ministers will be expected to support a 'yes' campaign."

Few members of the Government openly oppose the constitution but some are privately sceptical about the attempt to rewrite the legal basis for the EU by incorporating existing treaties in a single constitution.

The decision to force all ministers to campaign for a "yes" vote caused protests when the manifesto was discussed at a private meeting of trade union leaders, cabinet ministers and members of Labour's ruling national executive.

Dissidents were angry when they were told that they could not amend the manifesto, and it was a "take it or leave it" ultimatum. Dennis Skinner, the anti-European left-wing MP, protested that ministers should be given a free vote as they had been under Wilson. "It's completely unworkable," said another senior party source.

Mr Blair faces an uphill task to convince the British electorate to support the new constitution, and ministerial colleagues fear it will become a chance to give Mr Blair a "bloody nose" after the election.

As a result, some of Mr Blair's allies believe he may be using it to prepare for his own departure earlier than expected.

There was also a row with the RMT transport union over the failure of the manifesto to leave open the possibility of a move to a publicly owned railway.

Some on the left are also likely to criticise the manifesto for failing to commit Labour to building more council houses. Among the sweeteners, there will be discounts on council tax for volunteers.

Some ministers are sceptical about another commitment to allow the expansion of city academies into suburbs to cater for middle-class families. One minister accused Mr Blair of focusing too much on the "few" instead of the "many".

The manifesto will also contain a commitment to a free vote on a reformed House of Lords.

Mr Cook said it was a sign of the Prime Minister's growing weakness that he had been forced by his Cabinet to accept a commitment in the manifesto for a largely elected House of Lords, as reported in The Independent.

"I know just how hard Tony Blair must have swallowed before signing off that policy. He always wanted a chamber he could appoint, and will only have accepted elections by the public if he no longer feels strong enough to resist the demand.

"Nor do the consequences stop with the manifesto. The more the Labour campaign hits the potholes on the election trail, the less we have heard defiant noises from No 10 that the third term will be 'unremittingly New Labour'. To many Labour MPs, that always sounded more of a threat than a promise," Mr Cook said in the Evening Standard.

Criticising Mr Blair for introducing top-up fees in the last parliament, Mr Cook said: "Next time round, Blair will have lost the authority to sweep Labour MPs behind him in pursuing any more such dramatic and unpopular personal initiatives."

22 days to go

* The Tories admitted their promised £4bn tax cuts would not take effect until next year.

* Former foreign secretary Robin Cook predicted Tony Blair would stand down to make way for Gordon Brown "sooner rather than later".

* Ed Matts,the Tory candidate in Dorset South, apologised after being caught out doctoring a picture of himself with an asylum-seeker.

* The Green Party unveiled its manifesto, with pledges to bring in "eco-taxes" and renationalise the railways.

* Plaid Cymru lauched its campaign yesterday with a vow to be the "voice of Wales in Westminster".