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Wednesday, 8 May, 2002, 11:32 GMT 12:32 UK
Euro campaign urges Blair to act
Michael Heseltine, Tony Blair and Kenneth Clarke at the launch of Britain in Europe
Britain in Europe claims cross party support

The head of a Tony Blair-backed pressure group has urged the prime minister not to "chicken out" of holding a referendum on the single European currency.

Simon Buckby, of Britain in Europe, has come under fire from some for being in Downing Street's pocket.

In an interview with BBC News Online, Mr Buckby insisted that he was not afraid to apply pressure on the government to call a referendum.

His intervention comes amid growing signs that Labour is gearing up for a euro vote next Spring.

'Doomsday sect'

On Tuesday, Peter Hain, the Minister for Europe, delivered what is being seen as the government's first serious attempt to promote UK membership of the single currency.

Peter Hain
Hain: pro-euro
In a private speech, he attacked those such as the "Doomsday sect otherwise known as the Conservative Party", who advocated keeping Europe at arms length.

Earlier, in an interview with the Times newspaper, one of Chancellor Gordon Brown's closest allies, Treasury minister Nigel Griffiths, said he thought Britain would be using the euro within two years.

Britain in Europe has told BBC News Online it is planning its campaign around a spring vote.

But Mr Buckby said it was by no means certain that the prime minister would call a referendum in the Autumn.

He said it was part of the campaign's job to make Mr Blair stick to his guns.

'Big business'

"I think that the government know the longer we are outside the euro the greater the damage to our prosperity, the greater the chance of being able maintain a strong position," he said.

"They know that our trade, our investment and our jobs will be damaged.

"That is not the record that they will want to take to the public at the next general election.

"They also know that a very important and broad coalition containing senior Conservatives such as Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke, Geoffrey Howe and the Liberal Democrats and bosses of the majority of important big businesses in this country will definitely not be happy with the government if they chicken out."

The Britain in Europe campaign is funded by pro-euro businesses such as BT and consumer goods giant Unilever and was launched two years ago by Tony Blair.

Smear campaign

The prime minister famously shared a platform with pro-euro Conservatives Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine to emphasise the cross-party nature of its support.

I wrote off the period before the general election

Simon Buckby
But the choice of Mr Buckby, a former BBC journalist to run the campaign, was not without its critics.

Earlier this year an anonymous "Stop Simon Buckby" smear campaign was launched, purportedly to prevent him being selected as a Labour election candidate.

Mr Buckby is understandably keen to draw a line under this episode.

He hit back at critics who have accused Britain in Europe of failing to make an impact on public opinion.

"Before the general election, there were complaints from a very small group of recalcitrants, who left when I arrived," he said.

"If you speak to anyone in Britain in Europe now you will not get that view."

'Written off'

Mr Buckby admitted Britain in Europe had got off to a slow start in its mission to sell the euro to the British people.

But he said the infrastructure was now in place to fight a referendum campaign.

He said the anti-euro No campaign had to "fight every single day", while Britain in Europe could take a longer-term view.

"I wrote off the period before the general election," he told BBC News Online, "because it was clear there was not going to be a referendum".

This time was spent setting up "infrastructure" and hiring the 50 staff who work at the campaign's headquarters in London's Victoria and a further 15 in regional offices.

'Pressure' on government

The campaign is now attempting to capitalise on the successful launch of euro notes and coins and is stepping up its efforts to win over business leaders.

He said he feels "vindicated" by a shift in the polls towards the euro since the start of the year.

We are never going to be big enough to go knocking on doors

Simon Buckby
"All the things I used to say turned out to be even more true than I thought they were.

"The very fact of it (euro) being cash has had much more significant impact on public opinion."

'Stunts and scams'

He accused the No campaign of being obsessed with "stunts and scams" and more interested in scaring the government away from having a referendum than actually debating the issues.

He said Britain in Europe was not necessarily interested in the daily battle for headlines in the mostly anti-euro national press.

"I don't want to say we don't do it. We must keep making the argument but it is not a priority for us. The priority for us is networking.

"What we are trying to do is to find credible support figures to go on local TV and radio," he added.

'Difficult conditions'

Britain in Europe would be ready to mobilise a grass roots campaign when a referendum is called.

I am proud of what we have done here in very difficult conditions

Simon Buckby
But Mr Buckby stressed: "We are never going to be big enough to go knocking on doors - and that goes for the no campaign as well.

"What we have to do is create alliances and partnerships and that is why we are targeting opinion formers."

He said the next major "event" for pro-euro campaigners will come in August when "40 million people" arrive back from holidays in mainland Europe with euros on their pockets.

This would move the campaign on to another level, in preparation for a possible referendum in the Spring.

Mr Buckby said he "will be judged by the outcome of a referendum".

But he added: "I am proud of what we have done here in very difficult conditions."

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