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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 October, 2003, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
Blair's referendum gamble

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Constitution is vital for the new EU
Speculation is mounting that Tony Blair may yet consider offering Britons a vote on the looming EU constitution.

The prime minister flew to a Brussels summit on the issue insisting once again he would not offer the people a referendum on the finished document.

But his words came amongst signs that, under some circumstances, he may be willing to buckle.

It was reported that his adviser on Europe, Sir Stephen Wall, had warned him his stand against a poll was "untenable."

Downing Street dismissed the suggestion and said the government line had not changed.

Give ground

But it was also made plain by Downing Street that, should the prime minister fail to win all the arguments over the constitution, he could take it to the people.

Mr Blair has laid down firm, "red lines" he is not prepared to cross in areas like taxation, social security, defence and foreign policy.

He is determined not to give ground on those and has the power to veto the entire constitution if he does not get his way.

It may just be that these new signals are part of the prime minister's negotiating tactics.
But he is also deeply committed to the constitution which he believes is absolutely essential for the new, enlarged EU to function.

So it is just possible that he will have to make a choice between torpedoing the whole project or accepting some compromises.

And under those circumstances he would be left with a hugely difficult dilemma.

With political pressure already building for a referendum, he may then find it near impossible to admit he had not got all the protections he had demanded while still refusing a vote.

Play his game

The problem with that, of course, is that under current circumstances, he would almost certainly lose it.

He would have to turn any such vote into a poll on whether Britain stayed in the EU or withdrew altogether.

So it may just be that these new signals are part of the prime minister's negotiating tactics.

He is warning his EU partners that, if they refuse to play his game, he might find it impossible to resist a national vote which would risk killing off the constitution at birth and pitching the enlarged union into confusion.

If that is the tactic, it is a high risk one. Relations between the UK and some of its EU allies have still not recovered after the war on Iraq. They will not take kindly to ultimatums from Britain.

So it is probably best they are being whispered.

The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"There is going to be plenty of tough talk"

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