Blair to make U-turn on EU constitution referendum

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Tony Blair is expected this week to announce he wants to to hold a referendum on the new European Union constitution ­ one of the most dramatic policy U-turns of his premiership.

Tony Blair is expected this week to announce he wants to to hold a referendum on the new European Union constitution ­ one of the most dramatic policy U-turns of his premiership.

As MPs return from their Easter break, the Prime Minister is set to lay out plans for the new constitution to be put to the British people for approval, although a poll is unlikely to be held before the next election.

The announcement comes as all three main parties prepare to kick off the campaign for elections to the European Parliament on 10 June.

Mr Blair's policy shift threatens to wrongfoot the Tories, who had been planning to use Mr Blair's refusal to call a referendum as a central plank of their election campaign.

The Prime Minister has, in the past, point-blank refused to hold a referendum on the grounds that "the constitution does not fundamentally change the relationship between the UK and the EU".

The change of heart comes after several members of the Cabinet, including Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, argued in favour of holding a referendum. Mr Blair has been persuaded that not holding a poll could leave the Government a hostage to the Tories at the June elections and open it to accusations of arrogance.

The Prime Minister is expected to announce his intention to put the constitution ­ which is to be finalised by EU states in June ­ to a public vote after it has been ratified by Parliament. But the poll is not expected to be before the next general election, because of the lack of time and because losing a referendum could have disastrous implications for Mr Blair.

The Prime Minister is also expected to make a formal statement to MPs about his talks in Washington DC with President George Bush last week on Iraq and the Middle East peace process. He had faced criticism last week for indicating he would not update Parliament on the summit but now plans to give a full report today. Labour is also likely to include a commitment to an EU referendum in its manifesto for the next general election. That could prepare the way for a poll during the first year of a new Parliament.

Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, said he welcomed the policy change but would want to be convinced about the timing. Mr Howard will now be under pressure to give the Bill ratifying the EU constitution a clear ride through Parliament and not oppose it as he had previously planned. "If the Government really is planning a U-turn we welcome that, we have persistently called for a referendum," Mr Howard said. "However, the Government must not play games with the question or the timing."

Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, revealed in a television interview that Mr Blair had told him in private that a referendum campaign could immobilise the Government for six months.

"I have long since welcomed that opportunity, and the Liberal Democrats have consistently made that case," he said. "However, the cause of such necessary openness is not helped by off-the-record briefings to newspapers and a series of nods and winks to selected individuals."

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said yesterday that Mr Blair would make an announcement about a change in policy if necessary.

"We do consult the people where we think it is justified and necessary," he said on BBC Radio 4. "The Prime Minister has said he is listening to the argument that is going on. It appears to be changing even during the process of negotiations. Now that debate will continue and he will let you know in his time, as he said, whether there is any change in policy."

Senior government sources indicated that a referendum would not be linked to whether Britain stays in or outside the EU. But advisers to the Prime Minister believe that winning a referendum on the constitution may still prove difficult, even if Britain, as expected, holds on to key concessions in the final negotiations.

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