Cash-starved 'yes' camp has been damaged by war in Iraq

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair put himself at the head of a cross-party campaign for a "yes'' vote in a referendum on the new EU constitution yesterday.

But pro-European campaigners conceded last night that they have an uphill struggle because public trust in Mr Blair has been damaged over Iraq.

Mr Blair will also be relying on support from outside his party with Tories including the former foreign secretary Lord Howe of Aberavon and the former minister Ian Taylor likely to shore up the campaign.

Simon Buckby, the former director of Britain in Europe said: "I think it not only has to be a cross-party but anti-party campaign for a 'yes' vote. We will have to get teachers, police officers, nurses and academics, people from all walks of life involved, rather than the historic coalition of party leaders we had on the euro."

Britain in Europe - which expects to form the core of the "yes" campaign - is now little more than a skeleton body, starved of staff and cash, compared to the heady days when it was launched by Mr Blair, sharing a platform with the Tory grandees Ken Clarke and Lord Heseltine. Demoralised by Gordon Brown's decision to postpone indefinitely Britain's entry to the euro, Britain in Europe slashed its staff from more than 40 to about 10 in the capital to avoid a financial crisis, and moved from Westminster to a small office in north London.

Lucy Powell, who replaced Mr Buckby as the campaign director, now has about 20 staff, with half in the regions, but the headquarters will be moving to London Bridge and there are hopes that the organisation can be fully revitalised to fight for a "yes" vote in the referendum on the constitution. BiE relies on business and personal donations; its big backers have included Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the Science minister, and Lord Hollick, the Labour peer.

Mr Blair has refused a free vote for the Cabinet, so most of his ministers will be expected to campaign for a "yes" vote with the Liberal Democrats and a handful of pro-European Tories. Mr Blair's ally, Peter Mandelson, is expected to play an influential role in planning the campaign.