Brown turns on critics and pledges support for referendum campaign

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown joined the battle to persuade the British people to back the European Union constitution yesterday and said that Tony Blair would remain Prime Minister for another two years.

In a show of support for Mr Blair, the Chancellor said the Prime Minister would lead an all-party campaign for a "yes'' vote in a referendum expected in spring 2006. There is a growing belief in government circles that the referendum will be Mr Blair's swansong and that, win or lose it, he will leave Downing Street soon afterwards. Mr Brown's comments may cool speculation that Mr Blair will stand down before then. Asked if he would be prime minister by the time of the referendum, the Chancellor told BBC Radio 4: "Tony Blair is the Prime Minister and he will remain the Prime Minister."

He promised to "do what I can" to make the case for the constitution.

Mr Brown suggested the EU blueprint showed that demands for a federal Europe had peaked. "I take it as a success that, whereas a few years ago, people thought that Europe should harmonise its taxes, have a federal fiscal policy, have an economic governance that pushed us further and further towards a federal state, that is now recognised in this constitution not to be the correct way forward," he said.

The Chancellor was stung into action by Chris Patten, a European commissioner, who accused him of undermining the chances of winning a referendum. Mr Patten said: "Some like the Chancellor of the Exchequer have made extremely negative speeches about Europe, giving the impression that the rest of Europe is having to depend on food parcels in comparison with the great economic miracle in the UK.

"I think that feeds the myth that somehow we're completely different from and far better than any of our European counterparts, and I don't think that's a very helpful way of putting a sensible case for us preserving Britain's national interest as part of the EU."

Yesterday Mr Blair hailed the treaty agreed by EU leaders last Friday as "a success for Britain" and accused its opponents of "narrow nationalism".

In a Commons statement, he said the "myths" about the constitution had been demolished - for example, that Britain would be forced to join the euro, give up its seat on the United Nations Security Council and hand over control over its armed forces, taxes, oil and foreign policy to Brussels.

"But the myths, and the propaganda which goes with them, are not really about the constitutional treaty," he said. "They are about whether Britain should or should not be a leading member of the EU."

The Prime Minister insisted that the referendum would go ahead even if another EU country had already voted "no", which would block the treaty. Michael Howard, the Tory leader, branded Mr Blair "the great myth-maker himself". He said the EU blueprint would be "bad for our democracy, bad for jobs and bad for Britain". A total of 43 new areas of policy would be decided by majority voting, while only 27 of the 275 amendments proposed by Britain had been accepted.

Mr Howard said that Mr Blair had "no mandate" to sign the constitution after this month's European elections. Calling for an immediate referendum, the Tory leader said: "The only myth we have here is the Prime Minister's claim that this is a success for him and for Britain." He claimed Britain had been defeated on issues such as the creation of a European public prosecutor and European foreign minister, the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and a separate European military planning capability.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said any "yes" campaign "spun" from Downing Street would be lost. He told Mr Blair it should be "broadly based, cross party and involving significant persuasive voices from those outside formal party politics as well".

Campaigners from the "no'' and "yes" campaigns called for a 12-month "ceasefire" to avoid Europe dominating the forthcoming general election.

Ian Davidson, who will lead a new group of Labour MPs for a "no" vote, said:"There is no reason for us to be fighting the campaign now. I would hope that we can work with the Liberals and the Conservatives after the election but there is no reason to be breaking ranks now."

Simon Buckby, former director of Britain in Europe, which will form the core of the "yes" campaign, also said it was unlikely that Mr Blair would want to start the campaign and risk seeing splits in his own party over Europe.

* Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president and chief architect of the EU constitution, warned that politicians would need to fight hard to win referendums on the document, and said that opposition to the text in Britain was conditioned by a "positively anti-European" press. Of the 40,800 words proposed by the convention he chaired, about 30,500 had made it into the final version, he said. "We have not had to go a long way out of our way to meet the concerns of the British," M. Giscard added.