Heseltine and Clarke break silence to condemn 'appalling' vote on constitution

Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, the two most prominent Tory Europhiles, have criticised Tony Blair for calling a referendum on Europe as the Prime Minister's plans for an all-party "yes" campaign ran into trouble.

Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, the two most prominent Tory Europhiles, have criticised Tony Blair for calling a referendum on Europe as the Prime Minister's plans for an all-party "yes" campaign ran into trouble.

The former cabinet ministers fear that Mr Blair has played into the hands of the Eurosceptics by bowing to their pressure for a referendum on the proposed European Union constitution. They believe the Prime Minister's move will not placate newspaper barons such as Rupert Murdoch, but will merely allow them to set the agenda for the campaign.

Mr Clarke and Lord Heseltine, who Mr Blair wants to enlist to his "yes" campaign, feel betrayed by his U-turn because he had previously assured them he shared their total opposition to a referendum.

Mr Clarke, the former Chancellor, told The Independent: "I disapprove of a referendum. I do think it is a serious blow to the sovereignty of Parliament. MPs are elected to give line-by-line detailed scrutiny to documents of this kind."

He believes a referendum could still be two years away. "I will wait and see when and if a referendum takes place and I shall no doubt find myself taking part in it," he said.

In contrast, Lord Heseltine suggested he might boycott the campaign, saying: " I am not sure that I any longer feel I can sit on the same platform with members of a government who seem so indecisive and incapable of maintaining a position."

The former deputy prime minister described Mr Blair's move as "appalling and irresponsible", saying he had "capitulated" to the Eurosceptic media. Warning the campaign would be a fiasco, he said: "Rupert Murdoch will decide what Britain should think and what Britain should be told."

Yesterday Mr Blair turned down a call by Michael Howard for a televised debate between them as soon as the constitution is approved by EU leaders. As they clashed at Prime Minister's Questions, he told the Tory leader: "The debate we will have is here in this House and then, when it's agreed in this House, we will have the debate in the country. We have a televised debate now, I rather think."

Mr Blair, who suggested he would call a second referendum if the public rejected the constitution, wrote to Mr Howard asking how a Tory government would proceed in that event. Mr Blair asked: "Can you now confirm whether you would reject the constitutional treaty in its entirety or whether you would seek to amend it in discussion with our European partners?" The Tory leader replied: "If the British people were to vote "yes'', a Conservative government would accept the constitution. If the British people were to vote "no", a Conservative government would veto the constitution: and we would not agree to any new treaty which establishes a constitution for the European Union."

Mr Blair has left pro-European campaigners demoralised and in disarray. The all-party Britain in Europe group, set up to promote the benefits of EU membership, has shrunk to 20 staff from a peak of 35.

Phillippe Legrain, director of policy at the organisation, acknowledged the announcement had surprised campaigners on both sides of the argument, but was confident pro-Europeans would rally to the challenge. He said: "The constitution does not have a vast amount directly relevant to business. But if this is going to turn into a debate about Britain's membership of the EU and our future in Europe, business has a big stake."

Why did Blair cave in - and can he win?

Why has Tony Blair announced a referendum?

The Prime Minister believes his refusal to call a referendum was "crowding out" debate on the detail of the constitution and giving the impression that the Government was arrogant and had something to hide.

There may have been other reasons. A referendum pledge would deprive the Tories of one of their main weapons at the European elections in June and the general election expected in May next year. It is also likely to secure the continuing support of The Sun and The Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Will there definitely be a referendum in Britain?

Mr Blair insists he will call one even if another country stalls the new treaty by voting "no". Some MPs suspect he might try to delay Britain's vote if it looks as though the treaty might be blocked anyway. But it will be difficult to put it off for ever.

When will the referendum take place?

The timetable is vague. EU leaders must reach agreement on the constitution, which is likely in June. Then a new treaty will have to be drawn up by October or November. Mr Blair wants the legislation to implement it debated in Parliament before a referendum. This means the public would almost certainly not vote until after the general election. A referendum is likely in the autumn of next year.

What will Mr Blair's strategy be?

He will argue that Britain must decide whether it wants to be a key player at the heart of Europe or retreat to its margins. He will try to turn the debate into one about Britain's continued membership by warning that the Eurosceptic-dominated Tories would be isolated in the EU. Although Britain would not be forced to leave the EU if it rejects the treaty, he will claim that withdrawal or "associate membership" is the hidden agenda of many Tories.

What will the "no" campaign say?

The Tories argue that the constitution would "fundamentally change" Britain's relationship with Europe, taking steps towards the creation of an EU superstate. They say Britain would be a full EU member even if it rejects the new treaty. They insist the EU would not collapse if the constitution is scuppered.

What will happen if the British people vote "no" in a referendum?

Downing Street says there will be "profound implications" for Britain's influence in Europe. Labour would try to renegotiate a new treaty and hold a second referendum. A Tory government would veto the constitution but enter negotiations on another treaty in future.

Will Mr Blair have to resign if Britain rejects the constitution?

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, insists Mr Blair would not have to quit. But many MPs believe he would be morally bound to resign, especially if the country voted "no" by a big majority.

Will the treaty be scuppered if all 25 EU members do not ratify it?

Yes. But the country or countries in question could negotiate amendments to the treaty in order to put it to their people in a second referendum - as Denmark did on the euro and Ireland did on the Nice Treaty.

Will Tony Blair win?

The opinion pollsters and bookmakers think not. A YouGov survey for The Sun found that 53 per cent of people would vote "no" and 16 per cent "yes". Mr Blair believes he can reverse this hostility when people focus on the detail of the constitution, and suspects many do not know much about it. He will aim to win round the 28 per cent who are undecided. But allies admit he is taking a gamble.

What about a single currency referendum?

Ministers have ruled out a "double referendum" on the constitution and euro. They believe Britain's strong economic performance has delayed talk of euro membership. Mr Blair hopes a "yes" to the constitution might provide momentum for a euro plebiscite. Other ministers doubt there would be two referendums in one parliament.

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