A third of Tory MPs 'oppose Maastricht'

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THE PRIME Minister has been told that as many as one in three Conservative MPs is threatening to oppose the Maastricht Bill if it returns to the Commons. A revolt on such a scale would leave the Government relying on opposition party votes to rescue the treaty and the credibility of John Major's European policy.

The warning came from the Chief Whip, Richard Ryder, at last Thursday's Cabinet meeting. It accompanies signs of a bitter power struggle within the Government between the pro-European majority and a vocal group of Euro-sceptics.

Government whips have been taken aback by how easily opponents of re-entry into the European exchange rate mechanism persuaded more than 70 MPs to sign a motion calling for 'the abandonment of fixed exchange rates'. They believe that a hard core of 25 anti-Europeans, who have repeatedly opposed or abstained on European matters, has been swelled to more than 50 who say they would oppose a Maastricht Bill. About 100 MPs are said to have serious reservations, though ministers who back the treaty argue that doubters can be whittled away.

One source said that at least three-fifths of them would fall into line, leaving about 35 to 40 rebels. 'We would like to get it through without using other votes including the Liberal Democrats, but if we have to then we have to,' he added.

Ministers say the Bill will not return to Parliament before the Danes have decided how to handle their referendum rejection. In the meantime, ministers hope to 'clarify' the treaty with other member states. A declaration defining subsidiarity, thereby limiting the power of Brussels, could allay many Tory fears.

More evidence of the growing bitterness within the party over Europe emerged yesterday. Pro-Europeans were sharply criticial of Norman Lamont, the Chancellor, who has struck a more negative tone on EC issues since the pound's devaluation. One source said that, on the day Britain suspended its ERM membership, Mr Lamont had argued in ministerial meetings for a speedy return.

Tristan Garel-Jones, the Foreign Office minister responsible for much of the detailed negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty, told the Conservative Political Centre in London that many Euro-sceptics 'are actually Europhobes'. Critics of Maastricht were trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and the Government would 'have no truck with such political nihilism'.

William Cash, a backbench critic on Europe, described Mr Garel-Jones's views as 'an insult to the British people'.

Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, hinted on BBC Radio that he favoured keeping the pound outside the ERM. He said: 'We are no longer constrained in the same way by the actions of the Bundesbank . . . something we will make the most of and which will reinforce the advantages we have.'

Inside Story, page 18