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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 14:29 GMT
Straw backs 'euro bully' Hain
Peter Hain, Europe Minister
Hain has been an ardent advocate of euro benefits
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has backed Europe Minister Peter Hain after the latter said the UK could hold a euro referendum as early as next year.

We are all together on Europe

Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary
In an interview with a French newspaper, Mr Hain said a vote could be held in little more than a year if the economic conditions were right.

The Conservatives have seized on the comments as a sign that Tony Blair is planning to over-rule Chancellor Gordon Brown's five economic tests on euro entry.

They have accused Mr Hain of attempting to "steamroller" the public into a referendum.

'All together'

But Mr Straw stood by Mr Hain's remarks at a photocall to promote his football team Blackburn Rovers' Worthington Cup Final clash with Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday.

Mr Straw rejected the Europe minister's recent suggestion that British membership of the single currency was inevitable.

However, posing with the cup outside the Foreign Office today he said: "We are all together on Europe."

Mr Straw tried to laugh off anger at Mr Hain's suggestion that enemies of the euro were enemies of Europe.

"The only enemies of Europe at the moment are Spurs supporters who are trying to keep Blackburn Rovers out of Europe," he joked.

John Bercow, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury
Bercow says Hain is on a "crazed pursuit of publicity"

But Mr Hain's remarks could widen the splits emerging in his own party on the euro.

Former Labour minister Frank Field said Mr Hain was merely Downing Street's "fall guy" on the issue.

"I think he is being used by Number 10, as they do use people.

"They make them walk the plank to see how far they can get before the barrage of disapproval is such that they have to come back again."

But he said the government would "get its comeuppance" when the British public rejected the single currency.

Former Allies

Senior Labour backbencher Austin Mitchell accused Mr Hain of trying to curry favour with Mr Blair by seeking confrontation with former allies in the anti-euro camp.

"I think Peter is being a bit too assiduous in working his passage back to Blairite orthodoxy," Mr Mitchell, chairman of the Labour Euro Safeguards Campaign, told BBC News Online.

Mr Hain - previously seen as an opponent of the single currency - is now one of its most vocal political advocates.

'Buffer' date

He told Le Figaro newspaper: "I am not saying that the euro is inevitable.

"But the alternative to its adoption is an isolation which is anything but splendid."

Previously assumed euro timing
Before June 2003: Chancellor gives verdict on five tests
If yes, another six months before referendum
Another two to two-and-a-half years before pound replaced if yes vote
But that vote would only happen if the economic conditions were right and it would take another two or two-and-a-half years before the euro replaced the pound in practice.

By mapping out the possible timing for a referendum, Mr Hain is likely to annoy the chancellor, who has gone no further than saying his verdict on the economic tests will be ready by June 2003.

But Mr Hain said Mr Brown could present his findings this autumn or winter or next spring.

It would then take about four months to get the legislation through Parliament before a two-month campaign.

'Spelling out reality'

Mr Hain continued: "Let us be clear: the enemies of the euro are also the enemies of Europe.

"What they want is purely and simply the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union and an association with the American bloc."

The Tories are accusing Mr Hain of trying to bully people into accepting membership of the single currency.

Conservative Treasury spokesman John Bercow said Mr Blair, Mr Straw or Mr Brown should be "up front" if they were determined to hold a referendum next spring.

"What we do not need is the minister for Europe, in his crazed pursuit of publicity, giving interviews to foreign newspapers and trying to call the shots."

Mr Hain was backed, however, by Liberal Democrat spokesman Matthew Taylor, who said the minister was only spelling out reality.

"If Britain is to decide for or against the euro before the next election, a referendum will have to be held by the middle of next year," said Mr Taylor.

The BBC's Jo Coburn
"The Government's plans are still about as clear as mud"
Labour MP Ian Davidson
'It's offensive nonsense'
See also:

20 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Minister's licence to speak
10 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Hain - the establishment radical
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