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Wednesday, 3 October, 2001, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
Blair looks to euro
Prime minister Tony Blair
Blair is using his new found authority
Nick Assinder

For the first time in years, Tony Blair has signalled he is ready to take Britain into the single European currency in the near future.

The section of his conference speech which dealt with the euro sparked a good deal of controversy amongst delegates and the wider world.

Chancellor Gordon Brown
Brown is cautious on euro
While all eyes were understandably focussed on the section concerning the international crisis, few overlooked the fact that he had said something significant about the euro.

The prime minister told the conference that, if Chancellor Gordon Brown's famous five economic tests were met in this parliament, then the party should "have the courage of our arguments" and go for a referendum.

On the surface this was merely a blunt restatement of party policy.

But it was the tone of his comments and the fact that they came in a speech dominated by talk of the need for internationalism and global community that gave them added power.

It was also significant that he said anything at all about the euro.

Matter of principle

The previous day Gordon Brown had barely mentioned the euro, other than to say it was in the national interest to assess the five tests "so we can make the right economic decision for Britain."

There was no suggestion that he believed the five tests were near being met and there was no mention of a timetable.

The prime minister, on the other hand, went out of his way to reaffirm that the referendum could come in this parliament - even suggesting it was a matter of principle.

There has long been a split between the prime minister and the Chancellor over this issue. Brown is cautious while Blair is more enthusiastic.

So the prime minister's words suggest either he has persuaded the Chancellor of his argument or - far more likely - that he is using his new authority to press home his own agenda.

And that has inevitably given rise to claims that he is eager to hold the euro referendum before the next election.

Huge task

What has surprised many, however, is that Mr Blair is facing an overwhelmingly anti-euro public.

His past history suggests that, if policies are deeply unpopular with voters, he abandons them.

But if he is to win a "yes" vote in a euro referendum - and it is inconceivable he would hold a referendum demanding a "no" vote - then he has a huge task in turning around public opinion.

That would probably mean a long process of persuasion before the referendum campaign proper got under way.

And the fear is that, unless that campaign starts now, he will start running out of time. The last thing he wants is to have the referendum campaign running close to the next election.

So, many believe his words last Tuesday were the start of that campaign and that there will be more to come in the future.

How Gordon Brown reacts to all this will be one of the more fascinating political developments in the coming months.

See also:

02 Oct 01 | Business
Blair sounds a pro-euro note
30 Aug 01 | Europe
The politics of the euro
02 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Analysis: Blair's performance
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