Labour MPs challenge Blair to hold referendum

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Tony Blair was hit by another Labour backbench rebellion last night when 31 of his MPs demanded a referendum on the proposed new constitution for the European Union.

In a calculated act of defiance, the MPs made their call while Mr Blair was attending a summit of EU leaders in Brussels to negotiate the new blueprint for the post-enlargement Union.

Last night the summit was deadlocked by an acrimonious dispute over the voting power that Poland and Spain should enjoy in the EU's decision-making body, the Council of Ministers. They were resisting demands by Germany and France for a new system cutting their voting strength.

Mr Blair has repeatedly resisted calls, led by the Tory Opposition, for a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations in Brussels, which will continue today. He says the new constitution will not fundamentally alter Britain's relationship with the EU.

In a letter to The Independent, the MPs, including five former ministers, said the constitution will determine how the EU is run for the foreseeable future, and how it will relate to member states such as Britain. They said: "Seven other EU Governments have already pledged to hold national referendums, rather than ratify the constitution through their Parliaments.

"In view of the constitution's importance, and the overwhelming support for a referendum among UK voters (including a majority of Labour supporters), we urge the Government to put this decision to the people."

The move suggests the Government will run into trouble when it introduces legislation in Parliament to ratify the new EU treaty. The MPs will table amendments to the Bill calling for a referendum, and privately ministers admit the pressure to allow the public vote will be particularly intense in the Lords, where Labour does not have a majority.

The revolt will add to the impression that Mr Blair's authority over his party is waning. This year he has suffered bruising rebellions over the Iraq war and foundation hospitals, and faces a possible humiliating defeat next month over his plan to allow universities to charge up to £3,000 a year in top-up fees.

Last night the Prime Minister made clear he would not drop his opposition to a referendum. One aide said: "Perhaps people should wait to see what is actually in the constitution before they make demands. It is wishful thinking to suggest he will change his mind."

The demands for a plebiscite followed Mr Blair to Brussels, where five members of the Vote 2004 campaign were arrested for putting up posters calling for a referendum. Four of them were deported and a fifth is to be flown back to Britain today.

Mr Blair's battle to make the new constitution acceptable to a sceptical British public and press was put on hold yesterday as the EU summit failed to break the logjam over the voting power of Poland and Spain. "It is going to be very, very difficult," Mr Blair said.

Failure at the summit would be a severe blow to the EU as it prepares to grow from 15 to 25 members next spring and could encourage France and Germany to press ahead with closer integration, forming an "inner core" of a two-speed Europe. The meeting looks likely to run on into tomorrow in an attempt to avoid a damaging collapse.

There were signs last night that Spain might be ready to compromise but Poland was digging in for a long fight. It sees this issue as a test of its ability to win arguments when it joins the EU in May.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy, who is chairing the summit, promised Mr Blair he would take on board Britain's concerns about the draft constitution. But British sources said the pledge had not been translated into new language on the areas where the Government does not want to give up its veto, including foreign policy, combating tax fraud, social security and the rebate on Britain's contribution to EU funds.

British officials were hopeful Mr Blair's wishes could be accommodated but said there was no discussion of these issues yesterday because of the dispute over voting rights. Mr Blair admitted the row would not help promote the EU to its citizens. He said: "Everyone understands there is only point in having an agreement if that agreement makes the EU workable and effective on the issues that people still care about, which is not the intricacies of some of these constitutional questions, but questions to do with jobs, growth in Europe, security and terrorism."