Britain will join the euro in two years, says minister

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A trade and industry minister and close ally of the Chancellor swept aside Government caution over the euro yesterday by predicting that Britain would join within two years.

Nigel Griffiths, the Small Business Minister, went further in public than any other minister when he gave an upbeat assessment of the chances and timing of British membership of the single currency. "I think we will be in [the euro] within two years if things go as they are and we meet our economic tests and my hunch is we will," Mr Griffiths said.

His remarks represent a clear break with the caution repeatedly expressed by both Downing Street and the Treasury over the issue and will trigger fresh speculation about Gordon Brown's own views.

The Government's carefully worked compromise policy insists that Britain is, in principle, in favour of euro membership but, in practice, waiting for the right economic conditions.

Peter Hain, the minister for Europe, has in the past referred to euro membership as "inevitable" but he refrained from putting a precise date on British entry to the euro. Mr Hain, who delivered another strongly pro-EU speech last night, has only ever commented on the possible timing of a referendum, pointing out it could be as early as autumn.

The only firm commitment made by Tony Blair is that there will be an assessment before June 2003 to determine whether the five economic tests for entry have been met.

Mr Griffiths, who has been a friend of Mr Brown for years and once worked for him as a researcher, said the cost of a changeover would be "minimal for the majority of businesses.

"Any business that I visit tends to be neutral, relaxed about it and otherwise fairly enthusiastic. We will learn from the lessons of France, Portugal and the other countries who have bought into the euro," he said yesterday

Although not a Treasury minister, Mr Griffiths liaises with firms in Britain and his remarks will surprise many who believe a changeover could be difficult. Simon Buckby, the campaign director of Britain In Europe, said Mr Griffiths' comments were proof of the growing pressure from businesses to enter the euro.

He said: "They are paying a rising price for our isolation from the euro and now want action from the Government. A referendum now seems more likely than not and sooner rather than later."

The Treasury said yesterday that, although the preliminary technical work on euro entry was under way, the assessment itself had not yet started.

However, unlike previous Treasury reactions to Mr Hain's comments, officials did not criticise Mr Griffiths and pointed out that he was simply outlining one scenario.

Michael Howard, the shadow Chancellor, said last night that Mr Griffiths' remarks underlined the confusion at the heart of the Government's position. He said: "The Government should stop playing games over the euro. If they want to go in, they should get on with it. If they don't, they should stop talking and concentrate on dealing with the crisis within our public services."

In a speech at Chatham House in London today, Mr Hain will outline the benefits Britain derives from its membership of the EU, in terms of travel rights, economic and trading benefits, the environment and foreign and defence policy.

He is also expected to claim that large elements within the Conservative Party are eager to pull Britain out of the EU.