Referendum cannot be held for two years

Blunkett signals growing cabinet anger. Poll timetable in tatters as 2006 earliest date
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has been warned that a referendum on the new European constitution will have to be held off at least until 2006, adding to the disarray resulting from last week's policy U-turn.

Tony Blair has been warned that a referendum on the new European constitution will have to be held off at least until 2006, adding to the disarray resulting from last week's policy U-turn.

The Prime Minister faces a growing revolt over the decision that was taken without cabinet approval last Sunday. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is the latest senior minister to signal his disapproval. He is furious that he learnt about the U-turn from a newspaper after he returned from a visit to the United States, The Independent on Sunday has been told.

Both Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education, and Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence, failed to give the decision clear backings in interviews this weekend despite a personal apology from Mr Blair to his Cabinet about the mishandling of the announcement.

Confidence in the wisdom of the about-turn will be further undermined today as it emerged that his preferred date for the poll of autumn next year clashes with Britain's presidency of the EU.

Glenys Kinnock, the best-known Labour member of the European parliament, last night warned that it would be "impossible" for Mr Blair to hold a referendum during the UK's six-month term which starts on 1 July 2005.

The Prime Minister wants to postpone a referendum long enough to give both Houses of Parliament time to scrutinise the proposed EU constitution, which has not yet been finally drafted. He also wants to hold the referendum after the next general election, which is expected in May or June next year.

But his advisers appear to have overlooked the problems posed by Britain's EU presidency. Keith Vaz, the former minister for Europe, said: "If a referendum is to happen you can only really do it in 2006, because for the whole of those six months of 2005 we'll be playing host to ministers from 25 countries. You can't have the president of Poland flying in one day, and be off to the north of England for a referendum meeting the next." Mr Vaz wants Mr Blair to hold two referendums on the same day, on the euro and on the EU constitution.

Mrs Kinnock said: "It would be impossible to have a referendum during those six months, because it's just so busy. Every minister will be involved in hosting meetings."

Mr Blair's spokesman conceded last night that the issue of Britain's presidency posed a "reasonable question" over the poll's timing. He said: "We have decided that we are having a referendum, and we are not reneging on that promise. We are entering unchartered waters here."

Mr Blair faces further embarrassment today when his former economics adviser says he would vote against any new EU constitution that "remotely" resembled the current draft. Derek Scott said: "If the referendum is on a constitution that looks remotely like the one in December, I think that not only I but a great many British people will be voting against it."

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