Labour MPs urge Blair to call Europe referendum

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair could dispel the cynicism which has undermined trust in his government by fighting a referendum on the planned European Union constitution, one of his former ministers claims today.

Tony Blair could dispel the cynicism which has undermined trust in his government by fighting a referendum on the planned European Union constitution, one of his former ministers claims today.

The issue of whether the Government is right to sign a constitution without a popular vote seems certain to dominate the campaign around the European elections on 10 June.

EU leaders have decided to hurry ahead and finalise the draft constitution before the end of June. Eight out of the 25 countries affected have decided to hold referendums, but the Prime Minister has argued that the document is not significant enough to need popular endorsement.

The Tory leader Michael Howard has demanded a referendum, claiming the constitution will take significant powers away from Parliament. Mr Howard's view may have been coloured by opinion polls which suggest that the Government would lose a referendum heavily.

Up to 30 Labour MPs support the Tory position, including former social security minister Frank Field. Writing in The Independent on Sunday, Mr Field said: "Why not simply put the issue to the people as quickly as possible? It would be a high-risk strategy, but by so doing the Prime Minister might begin to reverse the tide of cynicism which now engulfs his government.

"Such a referendum campaign tests the best side of the Prime Minister, which is seen when he is fighting against huge odds, but for something in which he believes. By trusting the people to overrule him the Prime Minister would show that there was another side to the spin which has engendered such distrust."

Tory politicians who oppose Michael Howard's view that the new constitution is a threat to British sovereignty include the former deputy prime minister, Michael Heseltine.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the Government should go ahead and sign, and accused British newspapers with foreign proprietors, such as Rupert Murdoch, of whipping up anti-EU sentiment. He said: "I believe Britain gains from involvement in Europe. The more we can share power in the agreed fields, the more we can influence to our advantage the way Europe develops."

Until this month, it appeared that there was little prospect of a new constitution being agreed this year, because of a disagreement between Germany on the one hand and Poland and Spain on the other, over their respective voting strengths on the EU Council of Ministers. They have now agreed to compromise.

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