Tony Blair has thrown his weight behind a UK minister who appeared to rule out a deal with Spain over Gibraltar.
Gibraltarians overwhelmingly favour staying British
Foreign Office Minister Denis MacShane said there was no realistic chance of an accord with Spain to end the two countries' dispute over Gibraltar, because its population has shown it wants to remain British.
Mr Blair was quizzed about the issue when he faced MPs for the weekly prime minister's questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
The UK prime minister said: "There can be no question
of any deal going through without the consent of the people of Gibraltar.
have always made that clear. That remains the position."
Mr MacShane's remarks caused dismay in Spain, which has said it is determined to make Gibraltar Spanish territory after nearly 300 years of British rule.
In practice the efforts by the British and Spanish governments to reach an agreement for a kind of shared sovereignty over Gibraltar have been stalled for months, since 99% of the people of Gibraltar voted to remain British in a referendum last year.
Mr MacShane acknowledged, in an interview in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, that the Gibraltarians will not accept any major change in their status without a long period of calm relations with Spain.
Officially, British officials say they remain committed to the process of talks with Spain that had earlier led to a framework accord about shared sovereignty.
But Mr MacShane's words suggest that the whole issue could now be put off for a generation.
His Spanish ministerial counterpart, Ramon de Miguel, has criticised the comments as "inappropriate".
Public feeling about Gibraltar in Spain is running high and the issue threatens to damage the otherwise close relations between the two governments.
Spain continues to put pressure on the 30,000 inhabitants of Gibraltar by imposing long delays at the border with Spain and hindering telephone communications.
In Britain the Gibraltarians receive warm support from much of the media, and the main opposition Conservative Party has attacked the government for trying to "sell out" the people of Gibraltar.
A Conservative spokesman said now at last the government seemed to have realised it should give up that attempt.