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Government defies rebels on EU referendum

London Telegraph | August 28, 2007
Toby Helm

The Government today insisted there would be no referendum on the new EU treaty, despite revelations in the Daily Telegraph that 120 Labour MPs now want a public vote.

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said this morning that the treaty was different in "absolute essence" from the defunct European constitution, so the Government was not obliged to follow through on its manifesto pledge to hold a referendum. "We have not got a European constitution," Mr Miliband told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"Twenty-seven European heads of government all signed a document in June, after nearly two years of negotiation, saying the constitutional concept has been abandoned."

He added: "I think that as Parliament gets to grips with the reform treaty that comes out, as they look line by line, they will see first that it is good for Britain, second that it is very different from the constitution in absolute essence, and third that the red lines, the key national interests in foreign policy and other areas of the UK have been protected."

Mr Miliband was responding to revelations in today's Daily Telegraph that more than 120 Labour MPs, including several senior ministers, want a referendum on the new EU reform treaty.

The figure - more than a third of the Parliamentary Party - was disclosed by Ian Davidson, a Scottish Labour MP who, despite being close to Mr Brown, is co-ordinating the strong internal campaign for the British people to be given a say.

Mr Davidson, who has written to Mr Brown on behalf of the Labour rebels demanding major changes to the proposed EU Treaty - or alternatively a referendum - told The Daily Telegraph that support among his fellow MPs was running at levels similar to 2004 when Tony Blair had to give way and promise a plebiscite.

"On the basis of the soundings and conversations I have had with colleagues, the support for a referendum is similar to last time round when well over 120 Labour MPs publicly or privately backed a referendum," Mr Davidson said.

It is understood that several senior ministers are privately supporting the campaign.

Some Labour MPs claim that Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, is among those sympathetic to the rebels, believing that the party cannot claim to be more in tune with voters' concerns and more ready to listen than under Mr Blair, while denying them a say on relations with the EU.

It was Mr Straw who, as foreign secretary, persuaded Mr Blair to promise a referendum on the defunct constitutional treaty in Labour's 2005 general election manifesto.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Mr Brown has insisted that a referendum is not necessary because the replacement treaty - negotiated by Mr Blair in his last act as prime minister on the foreign stage - is less far-reaching than its predecessor. This was rejected in 2005 by French and Dutch voters and therefore never came into force.

However, his claim has incensed Labour rebels who have found common cause with several unions, and the Tories. All insist that the two treaties are virtually the same in all but name - and that as a result Labour should honour its 2005 election pledge.

More than 60,000 people have signed up to The Daily Telegraph campaign for a referendum.

In the letter to Mr Brown, Mr Davidson writes that the new treaty, which strengthens all the main EU institutions, is "virtually identical" to the Constitutional Treaty "and that we are therefore bound by our manifesto commitment to give the people a say before ratification".

He demands 12 reforms - which other EU leaders will refuse to accept - as the price for dropping his campaign.

These include keeping policing and criminal justice issues outside the remit of the European Court of Justice and scrapping plans for an EU foreign policy supremo with a back-up diplomatic service.

The rebellion is said to have caused deep alarm to Mr Brown who fears the party will appear as split over Europe as the Tories were in the 1980s and 1990s.

Government whips are said to have been telephoning Labour backbenchers warning them that their careers will be under threat if they go public to back the pro-referendum campaign.

Last night, senior union sources said they understood Mr Brown would try to avoid defeat on the referendum issue at next month's TUC Congress by promising that British workers would enjoy protection equal to other EU workers.

Several unions are supporting motions to the TUC calling for a referendum on the grounds that Britain has secured an effective opt-out from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which ministers feared would strengthen their position, including the right to strike.

Some Labour MPs believe Mr Brown may be increasingly tempted to call an early election if the EU referendum campaign continues to gather pace. One idea is that he could include a commitment to ratify the treaty in the election manifesto and, if he wins, use this to say he has a mandate not to call a referendum.

Labour MPs say the rebel group is made up of MPs from all wings of the party. It ranges from members of the 40-strong Campaign Group of Left-wingers to moderates such as the former minister Gisela Stuart, who was appointed by Labour to negotiate the original constitutional treaty.

The old hand at stirring rebellions

Ian Davidson is an old hand at stirring Labour rebellions over Europe - and every time he does so he seems to be successful.

The 57-year-old MP for Glasgow South West first made his Euro-sceptic presence felt when he set up and chaired the Labour Against the Euro group in 2001, when Tony Blair was still determined to take Britain into the single currency.

Then, he was on the same side as his good friend Gordon Brown, who was also hell bent on preventing Mr Blair from ditching the pound. Mr Brown - and Mr Davidson - won that battle.

Three years later Mr Davidson helped co-ordinate Labour pressure for a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in defiance of party policy.

A few weeks ago, he was at it again, and finding as much, if not more, interest. He now plans to expand the campaign, and is hoping for a hat-trick.

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