Friday, April 23, 2004

'No' campaigners desperate to sideline hardline Eurosceptics

By Ben Russell Political Correspondent
The Independent, 23 April 2004

UKIP's determination to align itself with Blair in making the referendum an "in-out" issue is having the predictable consequences. The "no" campaign will not have anything to do with it.

Campaigners opposed to the proposed European constitution are preparing a "softly softly" strategy to counter attempts by Tony Blair to turn the referendum on the issue into a wholesale vote on Britain's future role in Europe. Leaders of the embryonic "no" campaign are desperate to sideline hardline Eurosceptics who could aid Tony Blair's strategy of turning a referendum on the treaty into a full-scale poll on Britain's future place in the EU.

Senior figures want to exclude the UK Independence Party and other figures vehemently opposed to Britain's membership of the EU in favour of a "positive vote" for radical reform in Brussels. They want to demolish Mr Blair's claim that a "no" vote in the referendum, expected in autumn next year, will consign Britain to a form of "associate membership" permanently on the sidelines of Europe.

Instead they want to argue that a "no" vote is a positive vote for a different type of treaty. One source said: "There will be no question of UKIP being part of that campaign." Market research by potential leading members of the "no" lobby is said to suggest that Mr Blair cannot win a referendum on the detail of the constitution itself.

Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, has already set out his battle lines for the campaign, insisting that a vote against the constitutional treaty will leave the existing institutions of Europe untouched.

The anti-euro No Campaign disbanded after the decision by Gordon Brown to rule out early entry to the European single currency. But talks are continuing between a disparate group of business leaders prominent in the anti-euro campaign, Eurosceptic Labour MPs and Conservatives. The participants hope to set up a cross-party group which can run the anti-constitution campaign.

Senior figures are confident of easily raising the £5m allowed for a campaign, arguing that even pro-single currency figures from the business world are alarmed at the possible effects of a "yes" vote on the constitution. One source said: "We are going to be able to raise millions without trouble."

Central to the new grouping is thought to be Alex Hickman, a little known figure who served as chief executive of the Business for Sterling Group and is said to be respected by all the "concentric circles' of opinion likely to form a new "no" campaign. Matthew McGregor, the former head of the pro-referendum Vote 2004 campaign is also likely to be a leading figure in any campaign.

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