NS Interview - Patricia Hewitt

One of Blair's most trusted allies says Britain could pull out of Europe if the people vote ''no'' o

Patricia Hewitt has hotfooted it from the Commons chamber to her little ministerial bolt-hole upstairs. She - with every other member of the cabinet who did not have a very good excuse - had been cramped on the front bench in a show of solidarity with Tony Blair on day one of his campaign to sell the European constitution. Or rather to sell our continued membership of the European Union, full stop. Such is the dismal state of our affairs that seven years into the life of this government the existential question - in or out of Europe - which most people had thought had been settled back in 1975 is now being posed again.

"We have negotiated a very, very good constitutional treaty," the Trade and Industry Secretary offers as her starter. "If Margaret Thatcher had managed to negotiate this treaty, the Conservative Party and the anti-European press would have been hailing it as a massive victory for Britain."

When the cabinet's most pro-EU member is forced to invoke the name of the most anti-EU prime minister the UK ever had to bolster her case, the size of the task is laid bare. Hewitt was one of those who argued for a referendum, seeing it as the only way to challenge the increasing power of the anti-European voices in politics and what she calls the "poisonous press".

"I do believe that in modern politics, if you allow yourself as a political party, and particularly as a government, to be on the side of the machine or system or establishment and against people, then you risk losing. By saying, for perfectly sound constitutional reasons, that we weren't going to have a referendum, we put ourselves absolutely on the wrong side of the divide," she says.

"I also thought that not only should we engage in the argument, rather than assuming that we could get it through anyway [in parliament], but that once you do engage in the argument you can win it."

The government has still to work out how to proceed on the referendum. How quickly should it move? When should it start putting the case? And exactly what case should it put - the specific one about the merits of the new constitution or the bigger one about our future in Europe?

I ask Hewitt what would happen if Britain votes No. "We will be in uncharted territory," she replies. "It would have the effect, and would be intended to have the effect, of putting Britain on the margins, and probably on the road to withdrawal." This is a high-risk approach. Hewitt says defeat would not necessarily bring down the government, but negotiations on leaving the Union would be fraught. "It would quite clearly cause a crisis in the relations between Britain and the rest of the EU. We would have to sit down and work out where to go. It's unlikely there'd be any sympathy for the British position."

Like Blair, she is keen to close off escape routes. "The Prime Minister has said, and I think rightly so, that whatever the results in countries which have referendums before we do, we will have ours." So the referendum will happen, come what may. Blair is resisting calls from the No lobby for the vote to be held quickly. Hewitt suggests holding off for up to two years from now. "We don't have to ratify the treaty until the end of 2006," she says, pointing to the "practical problems" of conducting a referendum while Britain runs both the G8 and the EU presidencies next year. That is as late a prediction as has yet been made. But she insists that she and colleagues "have to get out there . . . from today" to make the case.

In Downing Street, the view is more cautious. Some of Blair's aides say that with so much ground to make up in the opinion polls (averaging currently about 80:20 against), no time can be wasted. Others argue - and this, for the moment, is the prevailing view - that nothing should be done to antagonise Rupert Murdoch and other anti-European press magnates before the election. Blair, I am told, is weighing up whether to make one major European speech before the summer break or to wait until his party conference address at the end of September. Then he would go quiet again until next summer. Having lost so much time over Iraq, he is determined to ensure that the run-up to the general election is dominated by the debate on public services, and thus does not want further distractions.

The story of Europe under new Labour is one of false dawns, with promises of "roadshows" and "big sells" invariably coming to nought. At least in the first term, the cabinet contained a number of heavyweights determined to make the running - the likes of Peter Mandelson, Stephen Byers and Robin Cook. Then the argument revolved around British membership of the euro.

That debate has now been all but lost, and the cabinet careers of its main protagonists have disappeared with it.

Hewitt's is almost a lone voice in cabinet - and that might not last for long. Blair is, I am told, considering appointing either her or Geoff Hoon as the next UK commissioner in Brussels, if he decides he needs to keep Mandelson closer to home.

She admits that the pro-Europe lobby in government has made mistakes. "We thought we could take Britain's membership of the EU for granted," she says. "The question has been not 'in or out of Europe?', but 'in or out of the euro?'. We as pro-Europeans were very much focused on that question, rather than thinking we needed to be making the case for British membership of Europe, and that probably was a mistake."

Particularly damaging, she says, was the concentration on the process of the single currency decision - when the assessment would be made and when Britain should join - rather than the principle. "I feel self-critical. I'm sure, if we had all put our minds to it some years back, that there would have been a way of arguing our corner." The corollary of this, such is the British voter's intrinsic antipathy or wariness about Europe, is that any government has to run in order just to stand still.

Yet Hewitt insists the referendum is winnable so long as the gap between people's personal experiences and political views about Europe can be narrowed. She cites, inter alia, "cheap phone calls, clean beaches, clean water" and, for a number of her constituents, the chance of going "on wonderful cheap holidays several times a year". When those constituents do travel, they see that in much of Europe the people have "a better pension system, and a better transport system" than in Britain.

Britons are able to retire in Europe, receive health treatment in Europe and already 1.5 million Britons have second homes in Europe, she says. "On a personal level, we are increasingly at ease not just with Europe, but in Europe. In our daily lives, most people think Europe is wonderful.

"Here are all these good things which Europe means in our daily lives - cafe culture, Italian food, all of that - and yet the EU, which has made most of it available to us, with the right to travel, study and work, is somehow seen as a political monster."

And what of the other voices in cabinet? I ask Hewitt if Gordon Brown goes weak at the knees when he hears the strains of the European anthem, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". "Gordon has been one of the staunchest proponents of the argument for economic reform for Europe," she replies, which is hardly an affirmation of pro-European sentiment. "Each of us will make the argument in the way that we feel most comfortable with," she adds.

In many respects, the harder-headed, more flexible and less romantic enlarged Europe is more in line with Brown's thinking and the similarly euro-cautious Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Hewitt argues that the economic reforms Blair and Brown have fought to introduce across the EU will make it easier to "sell" the message. But she warns her colleagues against using the language of "us criticising them". This, she says, sends a message to voters that Europe is "more of a threat than an opportunity".

This, it seems, is the best it is going to get for the pro-Europeans. Membership of the euro appears more distant than at any point over the past decade. Hewitt will not give up. She does not venture a time span, but insists: "If we look ahead, yes, I would say we are more likely than not to join a single currency, because the gains from doing so, under the right economic conditions, are very, very big indeed, much bigger than we thought when we did the assessment." This is not how her colleagues have been presenting it.

And what happens when Blair goes? The pro-Europeans are convinced that, for all the arguments, whoever succeeds him will usher in a period of even cooler relations. I ask Hewitt whether under Brown a British government could make a positive assessment of the euro.

"Yes," she answers, without hesitation. Blair, she says, is "personally very closely associated" with the European project. "But it's not a one-man band, because all of us believe that Britain benefits from being in the EU, and that position is not going to stop at the point when Tony Blair ceases to be Prime Minister."

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