Tory leader William Hague urged Tony Blair to delay the referendum on Scottish devolution following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, according newly-released official papers.
The vote, which led to the creation of the Scottish Parliament, was due to take place on September 11 1997, with a referendum on Welsh devolution a week later on September 18.
But files released to the National Archives show that when it was announced the funeral of the princess, who was killed in a car crash in Paris, would be on September 6, Mr Hague wrote to the prime minister appealing for a postponement.
“This inevitably means that the referendum campaigns will effectively close down, and only three days will then remain for the Scottish campaign. This cannot, in any respects, be regarded as satisfactory,” he wrote.
“I strongly feel that Parliament should be recalled next week so as to arrange to amend the Referendum Act so as to effect a delay. With cross party agreement this would be a quick and straightforward procedure.”
However Mr Blair rejected the idea, telling the Tory leader that there were “serious practical difficulties”.
“Recalling Parliament this week would have the effect of politicising this period of mourning – exactly what everyone wishes to avoid,” he wrote.
“In any case the campaign has already been underway for a month and a half – longer the than a general election campaign – and the issue of devolution has been under debate for many years in both Scotland and Wales.
“I do not believe that five days of suspended campaign really justifies the major upheaval that you suggest.”
In a private note to Mr Blair, his chief of staff Jonathan Powell, who drafted his reply, admitted the practical arguments were “not as strong a I would like”.
“The real argument is that we simply do not want to change the date of the referendum,” he wrote.
“Given that Hague is likely to use this letter after Saturday to show how unreasonable we are, I have nonetheless concentrated on the practical arguments.”