Brown 'may shift on treaty referendum'
Sunday Telegraph: 09/09/2007
By Robert Watts, Whitehall Correspondent
Gordon Brown could give ground on a referendum on the European Union treaty, according to a Cabinet minister. John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Business and Enterprise, said that the Government would wait to see the fine print of the treaty before a public vote is ruled out.
Mr Hutton said the new treaty posed "issues that are of real concern" about "economic and foreign policy sovereignty" and that it was vital that Britain's "red line" issues - concerning national sovereignty - were enshrined in the final document.
"We've got to wait for the October [EU] council obviously, to make sure all the agreements we've secured are properly and fully reflected in the text. But if there is some significant constitutional arrangement that would affect our relationship with the European Union … there should be a proper referendum."
When asked if the Government would win a referendum on the treaty, seen by most commentators as unlikely, Mr Hutton would only reply: "Well, I think so. I'm an optimist."
Mr Hutton's comments, given in an interview to be shown on GMTV this morning, were last night interpreted in Westminster as more of a gaffe than evidence that the Prime Minister was about to embark on an embarrassing volte-face. Nevertheless, his intervention is likely to be seized on by campaigners demanding a vote.
Last week, The Sunday Telegraph revealed that Mr Brown was determined to rule out a referendum after securing the support of key Cabinet colleagues. Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, who as foreign secretary in 2004 convinced Tony Blair to promise a referendum on the EU constitution is now understood to be "fully behind Gordon".
Nevertheless, Labour rebels claim that about 100 of the party's MPs may vote against the treaty when it is put to the Commons.
This weekend the Government is embroiled in heated last-ditch negotiations with trade union leaders ahead of next week's TUC conference.
On Wednesday afternoon delegates are set to vote on whether there should be a referendum. Mr Brown's advisers are negotiating over possible concessions that may persuade them to drop the motion.
The union movement is fiercely divided on the treaty. Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary, is determined that the motion be dropped. However, four major unions that bankroll Labour are demanding a referendum: the GMB general workers' union and three public sector unions - the RMT, Unison and Unite.
Meanwhile, a senior Brussels official accused Europe's politicians of backtracking on past commitments to openness by conducting negotiations on the new EU treaty in secret. Margot Wallstrom, European Commission vice-president, said the EU appeared to have returned to drawing up new treaties in confidential talks between lawyers and bureaucrats.
"We have backtracked on the ideal of openness," she told The Sunday Telegraph. "We have returned to the traditional approach."
Popular demand for a referendum continues to grow. An online campaign launched three days ago, called simply Iwantareferendum.com, already has more than 4,300 supporters.
A petition organised by The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph has already attracted 86,932 signatures.