Opposition seizes on Blair's confusion over joining euro

Paul Waugh Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 23 May 2002 00:00 BST

Tony Blair was wrong-footed on the euro yesterday when the Tories and Liberal Democrats seized on government confusion over a possible referendum on the issue.

The Prime Minister appeared embarrassed when Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, asked which cabinet minister would be in charge of organising elections and referendums. Mr Blair told him at Prime Minister's Question Time that the issue had been dealt with by the Home Office in the past but all decisions were Cabinet decisions.

To Tory laughter, Mr Duncan Smith pointed out that a June 2001 Downing Street press release made clear responsibility had been transferred to the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, led by Stephen Byers.

Downing Street later confirmed that Mr Byers' department would indeed be in charge of the referendum, although the decision on whether to hold one remained with the whole Government.

Mr Duncan Smith asked whether Mr Byers was correct when he told journalists last week that legislation to enable a poll on the single currency could form part of this autumn's Queen's Speech. "It's marvellous that when the Transport Secretary goes on failing to tell the truth the Prime Minister runs to his defence," said Mr Duncan Smith. "When it appears there's a glimmer of truth in what he says the Prime Minister dumps on him. The Transport Secretary, the man in charge of referendums, is the one who is going to organise this legislation. He said on the day of the next Queen's Speech there would be legislation on the euro referendum.

"Was he telling the truth. Yes or no?"

Mr Blair repeated his insistence that the position was absolutely clear. "If the economic tests are passed we put it to the people in a referendum," he said. "What is more, those tests have to be met before June 2003."

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, asked Mr Blair if he agreed with David Miliband, MP for South Shields and the former head of the Downing Street policy unit, that the five economic tests for joining the single currency had already been met.

Mr Blair replied: "I agree, of course, with the government policy."

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