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Thursday, 16 May, 2002, 19:49 GMT 20:49 UK
Euro vote timetable 'unveiled'
Prime Minister Tony Blair and Jeremy Paxman
Blair told Paxman decision was close
test hello test
By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent
line
An historic vote on whether Britain should enter the single currency is planned by the end of next year, according to Transport Secretary Stephen Byers.

Legislation for a referendum on the issue will be put before parliament in the next session (which lasts from November 2002 to July 2003), he disclosed.

But the timetable was being played down by Downing Street, which is continuing to insist there are no plans for legislation unless and until the five economic tests are met.

Mr Byers said the legislation would be hurried through both the Lords and the Commons to allow voters to have their say some time next year - with speculation mounting of a 1 May vote.

Euro notes
Five tests for euros
The move may not be announced in the Queen's Speech at the start of the next session on 4 November.

But Leader of the House Robin Cook has confirmed that there will be space available to bring in legislation at any time during the session, if necessary.

The timetable's "unveiling" comes amid growing signs that the government is gearing up for a full-blown pro-euro campaign.

Little delay

Tony Blair made some of his most pro-single currency comments yet during his marathon interview with Jeremy Paxman for BBC 2's Newsnight on Wednesday night.

He reminded voters the examination of the famous five tests, which need to be met before a referendum, would be made before June of next year and said decision time was "getting close".

If the tests are met - and it is unthinkable the government would go public before they were - legislation would be put before parliament immediately.

There would then be a pause as MPs and Peers debated the legislation.

But, with the Liberal Democrats in favour of entry and the Tories eager to get the issue settled, ministers expect little delay.

Move forward

Mr Byers also spoke of the Government's dilemma over the euro at a lunch with journalists: "We are now getting to the stage where decisions are going to be needed to decided."

Minister Stephen Byers
Byers: brave decision
Mr Byers insisted that the Government's position had not changed and recommending joining the euro would still be based on the five economic tests.

He added: "This is not the time to stand still but actually move forward.

"It will not be an easy campaign to win, but we will be taking people through the arguments in favour and see if people feel it is something they want to vote for."

Mr Byers said it would be a "bold decision" to call a referendum because opinion polls appeared to be against it but this "should not be a reason to duck the question".

"From what I know of the Government we don't run away from these decisions."

Name the day

There has been intense speculation inside Westminster recently about the precise timetable for the referendum.

Former frontbencher Denzil Davies earlier this week claimed a deal may have been done between the prime minister and Chancellor Gordon Brown - always seen as highly cautious about the timing of a vote - to allow the referendum next year.

Meanwhile both the pro and anti-single currency groups on all sides of the Commons have started their campaigns.

Former Tory Chancellor Kenneth Clarke has unveiled his pro-euro campaign while stars like Harry Enfield have launched a Labour anti-single currency group.

Some economists have predicted the vital vote will come on May Day of next year and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has been pressing for the prime minister to name the day.

One thing now looks certain. The campaign has started.

It may still be behind the scenes, with ministers reluctant to openly confirm details, but there can be little doubt that events are now moving fast.

When the referendum does come it will be seen as one of the biggest political decisions taken by Britain since the last war.

No lobby

The last similar vote came in 1974 when Britain was asked by the then Labour government whether it wanted to remain inside the Common Market, as the EU was then called.

Opinion was against at the start of the campaign but a fierce "yes" lobby, led by prime minister Harold Wilson, finally turned the tables in favour of remaining in the community.

This time around MPs will again be allowed to campaign on either side of the argument and the prime minister clearly believes he needs time to swing opinion behind a "yes" vote.

Once the referendum is announced it will also spark a fierce campaign by sections of the media with some newspapers, such as Rupert Murdoch's Sun, and the Daily Mail leading the "no" lobby.

The prime minister knows he faces formidable obstacles.

But if he wants to go down in history as the man who took Britain into a successful single currency, then he knows he will have to lead a powerful and lengthy offensive for a "yes" vote.

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The BBC's Vicki Young
"Tony Blair... was sticking to the agreed line"
See also:

16 May 02 | UK Politics
Euro gaffe Byers under axe
16 May 02 | UK Politics
Q&A: The UK's euro timetable
15 May 02 | UK Politics
Blair's euro enthusiasm
16 May 02 | UK Politics
Tory chief to Blair: Get on with it
16 May 02 | UK Politics
Blair says euro poll 'getting close'
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