Frank Field: Blair could lose a referendum, yet come out on top

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The Independent Online

It is already clear that the fallout of those terrorist bombs in Spain is not going to be limited to the overthrow of the Spanish government. Three weekends ago no money was being placed on the member states agreeing a new European constitution. Now all the talk is that it will sail through before the end of the Irish presidency in mid-year.

It is already clear that the fallout of those terrorist bombs in Spain is not going to be limited to the overthrow of the Spanish government. Three weekends ago no money was being placed on the member states agreeing a new European constitution. Now all the talk is that it will sail through before the end of the Irish presidency in mid-year.

Here is one headache Tony Blair could do without. It is one thing to talk of aspirations for a new European constitution, knowing that it is no more than blowing warm air around. It is quite different for the electorate to find that this hazy idea might become a reality.

Because of the significant changes the constitution will make to running the EU, eight countries have agreed to hold a referendum. There is also mounting pressure in other member states for the "the people to decide" the issue. Polls show the voters know the constitution to be serious business and not the simple tidying-up operation ministers once claimed. Why, they have rumbled, would the Government make so much of the red lines it has drawn denoting areas beyond which it says it will never surrender, if the exercise was really a matter of rearranging what is already there?

Much more important is the nature of the opposition among voters and politicians. Vote 2004, the umbrella organisation campaigning for the people to decide this issue, has struck up a first-time alliance between pro and sceptical EU supporters. Voters are not particularly interested in where MPs stand on the constitution. The central issue is whether they are going to decide or whether politicians are going to shut them out from deciding the future of Britain. Parliament won't easily concede to the Government's wish to box off the electorate. There is every possibility of the Lords taking the voters' side by imposing a referendum as a prelude to any signing ceremony.

Conceding the referendum on the same day as the next election is one of those No 10 bright ideas which simply doesn't stand up. To hold the referendum on polling day for the general election would inevitably result in the election campaign being dominated by Europe - a big vote-loser for the Government.

Here the trust factor would come into play. Would a re-elected Labour government accept the verdict of an electorate that had turned down the constitution? Matters would be massively complicated if the Tories pledged, if elected, to vote down the constitution and then call an election so that voters could then decide the programme for a full parliament. For the Tories to divorce the two issues could prove fatal for Labour.

There is an alternative which could be attractive to the Prime Minister, who knows he has lost the voters' trust. 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.

On past form, one or more of the countries holding referendums will see the defeat of the proposals, once again derailing the whole project. Blair would be wise to take such an outcome into his calculations. In any event it would be a magnanimous move for the PM to give the people the chance to overrule him. It would also show that this is not a fag-end government waiting to hoover up fag-end events, but one still prepared to confront the big issues, even if it has to follow what the voters want.

Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead

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