Straw confirms that Britain will hold referendum in early 2006

The referendum on the European constitution will be held in "early 2006", the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw confirmed yesterday.

He said that next year the Government would be fully occupied chairing the G8 and holding the presidency of the European Union. Ministers have privately pencilled in March for the referendum. One minister said: "We think it is still winnable but if we lose, we don't want that to be confused with the local elections in May."

The "no" campaign stole a march yesterday by screening the first of its advertisements in cinemas before the film Bridget Jones 2. The ad, in which a man uses billiard balls to explain the constitution, claims that voters would have less control over how their country is run.

The Cabinet believes it will be necessary to secure a "bounce" from a Labour general election victory next year to win the referendum, and leaving it any longer than spring 2006 would lose that momentum.

The Foreign Secretary said: "No precise date has been accepted and it depends partly on the parliamentary process.

"It is likely to be in early 2006 ... In autumn of 2005 we have the presidency of the EU and it would be practically almost impossible to be running the presidency with the referendum."

Mr Straw appeared to hint that Britain could still shelve the referendum if the French vote "no" before the British poll. But Downing Street insisted Tony Blair would honour his commitment to hold a referendum regardless of the French vote.

The Cabinet agreed on Thursday to include the Bill for the referendum in the Queen's Speech at the end of November. The Bill will spell out the question that will be put to voters. Mr Blair has signalled he will make it a test of Britain's willingness to stay in the EU, arguing the Tories and the Euro-sceptics would pull Britain out. The Prime Minister's official spokesman suggested the question would be limited to the constitution.

The putative "yes" campaign was launched yesterday with a letter supporting the new constitution signed by the former Tory chancellors of the exchequer Lord Howe and Kenneth Clarke; Chris Patten, the outgoing EU commissioner; Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary; and Neil Kinnock, Britain's other commissioner.

VOTING TIMETABLE

Spring 2005

Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain to hold referendums

Summer 2005

France to hold its vote. Poland's expected, Ireland will vote 2005 or early 2006

2006

Britain, Czech Republic and Denmark expected to hold referendums

Countries undecided about referendum:

Austria, Finland, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Latvia

Referendum ruled out:

Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Malta, Sweden

Yes votes expected:

Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Portugal and Spain

No votes expected:

Denmark, Britain, Czech Republic and Poland

Countries where voters are undecided:

France and Irish Republic

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