Britain may not stay in EU if vote on constitution is lost, says Hewitt

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Indy Politics

A cabinet minister raised the stakes on the EU constitution referendum yesterday as she warned a "no" vote could lead to Britain pulling out of Europe.

A cabinet minister raised the stakes on the EU constitution referendum yesterday as she warned a "no" vote could lead to Britain pulling out of Europe.

Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, was accused of resorting to scare tactics to try to influence the national vote which will follow last week's blueprint for the future shape of Europe.

Ms Hewitt, one of the most strongly pro-European ministers, makes her provocative comments in an interview with the New Statesman today.

Asked about the effect of a "no vote", she said: "We will be in uncharted territory. It would have the effect, and would be intended to have the effect, of putting Britain on the margins, and probably on the road to withdrawal."

Such an outcome, which would torpedo the constitution's implementation across all 25 member states, would create a crisis between Britain and the rest of the EU.

"We would have to sit down and work out where to go. It's unlikely there'd be any sympathy for the British position," Ms Hewitt said.

She dismissed calls for a rapid vote on the constitution, pointing out that it does not have to be ratified until the end of 2006. But she said ministers had to "get out there ... from today" to make the case for a "yes" vote.

Ms Hewitt argued that Tony Blair hammered out a "very, very good constitutional treaty" last week in Brussels. She said: "If Margaret Thatcher had managed to negotiate this treaty, the Conservative Party and the anti-European press would have been hailing it as a massive victory for Britain."

She conceded the pro-Europe lobby had blundered in taking Britain's EU membership "for granted", concentrating instead on making the case for joining the single currency.

Ms Hewitt insisted the referendum was winnable so long as the gap between people's personal experiences and political views about Europe could be narrowed. She cited "cheap phone calls, clean beaches, clean water" and said Britons saw there was "a better pension system and a better transport system" in much of Europe.

Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, accused Ms Hewitt of scare tactics and striking a different note from Mr Blair, who has pledged to consult colleagues in the event of a "no" vote.

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