Denis MacShane, the new minister for Europe, faced anger last night after referring to Gibraltar as part of Spain. The day after almost 99 per cent of Gibraltarians voted to stay British, Mr MacShane said the poll had solved none of the problems confronting the colony. His message was echoed by Downing Street, which dismissed the referendum exercise as pointless.
Some 17,900 of Gibraltar's citizens rejected plans for Britain to share sovereignty over the territory with Spain and only 187 were in favour. Turn-out was an unprecedented 88 per cent of an electorate of 20,673.
Yesterday Gibraltar's leader, Peter Caruana, predicted a new era of co-operation with Britain. "This is an enormous success for Gibraltar," he beamed. "We hope the British Government will take note and respect the views of the people of Gibraltar." He said he believed that Tony Blair had "every intention of heeding Gibraltar's view".
But the Rock's government will view a reference by Mr MacShane to the need for Gibraltar to improve its communications with the "rest of Spain" as revealing London's true intentions. The minister said: "Can we think about the future of all the people of Gibraltar? Has last night's result taken us forward? Does it solve the problems of telephone access? Does it solve the problems of communications with the rest of Spain?"
Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, called on him to withdraw the remark. He said: "Mr MacShane has given the game away and demonstrated the readiness of the British Government to give Gibraltar to Spain."
The referendum result coincided with a scathing report by the Commons' Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which demanded the Government take account of the poll.
But Tony Blair's official spokesman said: "I don't think the referendum told us anything that we didn't know. All along we have said no deal will be imposed on the people of Gibraltar without their support in a referendum. That remains the bottom line.
"Equally, however, there are real issues which cannot be run away from, and they have to be discussed with the people of Gibraltar and with the Spanish. Whether they are discussed next week, next month, next year, those issues are not going to change."
Mr MacShane reiterated that no form of power sharing would be imposed on Gibraltar without the consent of the Rock's residents. "There is no possibility of any sort of any agreement with Spain ... that can be put into place without the approval of the people of Gibraltar," he said.
"We have to reflect on last night, reflect on the last year and try and take this forward. It's the young people of the Rock we have to be concerned about. They have got a very worrying and rather wearisome future ahead of them, and I just want to ensure that the Union Jack flies over Gibraltar but that that part of Europe starts to function normally."
The result of the referendum binds neither Britain nor Spain, but Mr Caruana said Gibraltar's hand had been enormously strengthened by "the overwhelming expression of a clear and unambiguous view" that any democratic government "must acknowledge".
Mr Caruana welcomed the select committee's report. He said Britain had the perfect opportunity to announce "with dignity" that it would abandon the joint sovereignty proposals.
Madrid, too, seems to be waiting for Britain's next move. The referendum was not called by the "competent authorities" and was not legally binding, the ruling Popular Party's foreign affairs spokesman, Gustavo de Aristegui, said yesterday. "[It] is not going to help resolve the problems of Gibraltar, the Gibraltar region or the 300-year-old dispute between Britain and Spain."