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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 18:37 GMT
Hague wants euro election campaign
Opposition leader William Hague
Hague's campaign has stuck a chord
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

If William Hague gets his way, Britain's relationship with Europe - and specifically the euro - will be one of the central themes of the general election campaign.

With the currency making only a meek recovery on the exchange markets and continued opposition to it amongst voters, the opposition leader would dearly love to turn the campaign into a mini-referendum on British membership of the euro.

His "keep the pound" campaign has struck a chord with many voters and he sees it as a massive vote winner.

Greece may now be the 12th member of the eurozone, but last year's "no" vote in Denmark has significantly strengthened Mr Hague's hand by blowing a gaping hole in the argument that membership of the single currency is inevitable.

Tony Blair, meanwhile, is clearly eager to neutralise the row for the election campaign, also fearing it could prove a vote winner for the Tories.

He has now promised to put the issue to a referendum within two years of the next general election, assuming he wins it.

But he keeps stressing that no assessment would be made on whether to recommend joining the euro in the first few months after the election.

And he insists his policy - that he is in favour of joining if the famous five economic conditions are right - has not changed.

Mr Blair also keeps ridiculing the Tory position of ruling out membership, but only for the lifetime of one parliament.

Economic tests

That the government has somewhat changed its tone over the past few months was best summed up in the prime minister's comment before Christmas that, if a referendum was held now, he would vote "no."

It was a neat switch because, while it clearly did not represent a change in policy, it did suggest that the issue is no longer top of the government's agenda.

It was seen as a clear indication, accidental or otherwise, of the government's current thinking on the euro.

In other words, Mr Blair desperately does NOT want it to be a central factor in the election campaign.

For one thing, he is facing a concerted anti-euro campaign by influential newspapers, including Rupert Murdoch's Sun which supported him at the last election.

It is also now plain what a second Labour administration would do regarding Chancellor Gordon Brown's five economic tests.

Mr Blair has always insisted that, shortly after the next election, the cabinet would take a decision on whether the conditions had been met or not before deciding whether to hold a referendum.

In reality, that decision will be kept secret unless it is believed the conditions are right and the government can launch a "yes" campaign.

Cabinet row

Meanwhile, there is the continuing row within cabinet over the government's position.

Pro-euro ministers have been publicly pushing their line while the more cautious ones, led by Gordon Brown, have been playing the issue down.

At first it was believed that the prime minister was happy to see a public debate on the issue - so long as he was not associated with it - to help pave the way for a "yes" vote after the election.

But that also appears to have changed and the prime minister now seems to want to keep the lid on the issue and is believed to have told his ministers to stick scrupulously to the agreed cabinet line.

And most betting is now on the government trying to back away from any great pre-election debate on the issue.

William Hague's great challenge, therefore, is to keep that debate alive.

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