Blair to push Europe Bill before election

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair wants to rush legislation implementing the proposed European Union constitution on to the statute book before the general election expected in May next year.

Tony Blair wants to rush legislation implementing the proposed European Union constitution on to the statute book before the general election expected in May next year.

Downing Street has asked ministers to give top priority to two Bills in the Queen's Speech in November for a parliamentary session that would be cut short by the election. The Bills cover the new EU treaty and David Blunkett's controversial plans for identity cards.

Mr Blair has decided to seek speedy parliamentary approval for the EU treaty, which is expected to be agreed at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels next month. He wants a single Europe Bill, which would include the new treaty and give the Government the power to call a referendum.

The move will ensure that Europe is at the centre of the political debate in the run-up to the general election. Aides say Mr Blair will make the case that the constitution would not create a superstate but would entrench decision-making power with national governments through the Council of Ministers, who discuss different issues, and the 25 leaders of the European Council.

If the Europe Bill is enacted, the Government would not need a separate referendum Bill after the general election, allowing a plebiscite to take place just weeks after a May election.

The timing of the vote has not been fixed. Some Blair advisers want to hold it as soon as possible after the election. But others want to delay the referendum until early 2006, saying it would be difficult to hold it in the second half of next year, when ministers will be too busy as Britain holds the EU's rotating presidency.

There is growing speculation among Labour MPs that Mr Blair will announce he is standing down after the referendum - whether it is won or lost.

The Tories will allow the speedy passage of the Europe Bill and will challenge Mr Blair to call the referendum next March - before the general election. He will refuse to do so, in case people use the vote to give him a "bloody nose" without changing the Government.

The decision to give priority to legislation on identity cards is a boost for Mr Blunkett, who has faced opposition from other ministers including the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. The Home Secretary has the solid support of Mr Blair, who said after the Madrid bombings that the cards would probably be introduced "more quickly even than we anticipated, and that is because we are living in a new world and with a new threat that we have to take account of."

Under a draft Bill published last month, a national scheme would be phased in with new passports and driving licences using new biometric information. The Bill would allow the Government to make it compulsory to register and hold an identity card without fresh legislation but after a vote in both the Commons and Lords.

The Government expects 80 per cent of people in work will have an ID card by 2013 but the parliamentary vote on compulsion could happen before then.

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