The Week in Politics: 'Yes' tortoise is yet to get out of the starting block

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair will next week receive a bitter-sweet memo from Denis MacShane, his Minister for Europe. He will tell the Prime Minister that a referendum on the European constitution can be won, but it could be lost unless Mr Blair and his ministers start the campaign now.

Tony Blair will next week receive a bitter-sweet memo from Denis MacShane, his Minister for Europe. He will tell the Prime Minister that a referendum on the European constitution can be won, but it could be lost unless Mr Blair and his ministers start the campaign now.

It will not be a message that Mr Blair wants to hear. Although he claims he is relishing a great debate about Europe, he promised a referendum mainly to shelve the issue until after the general election. It is his insurance policy against the Tories making Europe an election issue.

Mr Blair talks a good game on Europe, but has never followed through. In 1999 he launched Britain in Europe, a "once in a generation" all-party campaign to resolve Britain's ambivalent relationship with the EU. A year ago, Mr Blair and Gordon Brown promised us "roadshows" to promote the benefits of the euro. I am still waiting for my invitation to attend the first.

For all his good intentions, the Prime Minister has failed miserably to give a lead on Europe. One speech every six months is not enough to combat the torrent of Eurosceptic propaganda in most of the British press.

To make matters worse, ministers have pandered to these prejudices. Take the much-vaunted "red lines" Mr Blair protected during the negotiations on the constitution, allowing him to claim victory. Such language reinforces the image of Europe as a permanent battle.

"The trouble is that several ministers do not really like Europe," one pro-EU cabinet minister told me. Mr Blair's problem is that they include Mr Brown and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. They may be reluctant warriors in the battle for a "yes" vote. And yet Mr Blair almost certainly will not move them when he reshuffles his Cabinet next month.

"Gordon does not want to inherit a Britain on the sidelines of Europe," one Blairite minister said hopefully. "If he took over from Tony after a 'no' vote, his Government would be like John Major's after Black Wednesday." However, Mr Brown finds it hard to mention Europe without crowing about Britain's better economic performance than the eurozone. Again, this is hardly a good reason to back the constitution: if we are doing so well, do we need to join this club?

As Mr MacShane told ambassadors from EU states in London on Tuesday: "I wish we were more confident about Europe. Too many people, as the recent elections to Strasbourg [the European Parliament] showed, see the EU as a problem, not a solution. We have to change this perception."

When will be the campaign begin? Ministers say that is the "€64,000 question" and do not know the answer. I asked some of Mr Blair's closest aides. The consensus was that the Europe issue would not die because a Bill to ratify the constitution would be introduced in Parliament in the new session beginning in November. But they admitted that the campaign proper would not start until after the general election expected next May.

With Mr Blair's trust ratings at an all-time low, he will need all the help he can get. Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, is surely right to say that the "yes" campaign - whenever it comes - must not be run from Downing Street. The embryo "yes" campaign for a euro referendum took its orders from an over-cautious No 10 and flopped. Its former campaign director, Simon Buckby, has alienated his former friends in Downing Street with some bitter public criticism.

So can the referendum be won? On the evidence of this month's European elections, the prospects are pretty bleak. But there was one ray of hope for Mr Blair: the unexpected success of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) may make it easier for him to turn the referendum into a choice between being "in or out" of Europe rather than "yes or no" to the constitution. "We are going to have to frighten people into believing that a 'no' vote would put us on the way out of Europe," one Blair aide admitted candidly.

Optimistic pro-Europeans detect a touch of complacency in the ranks of the Eurosceptics. They say it is better to come from behind, to be the tortoise not the hare.

Although they will have little choice, perhaps they have a point. The evidence of referendums on Europe in Ireland, Denmark and Sweden is that people rebel when the establishment tells them to say "yes". Could, some pro-Europeans wonder, we transform UKIP's guerrilla fighters into Britain's Eurosceptic mainstream? Easier said than done, I suspect.

A more fruitful approach would to be to present the EU constitution as a vote for the status quo, as the "yes" campaign did when Britain voted to stay in Europe in 1975, rather than a leap in the dark (as joining the single currency would be portrayed by the Eurosceptics in a euro referendum).

Mr Blair's trump card might be to highlight the uncertainty and chaos about Britain's position and influence in Europe that would follow a "no" vote. But to win, he needs to kickstart the campaign now.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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