Cabinet ready to accept EU climbdown: Hurd throws his weight behind voting package as ministers hope for more concessions from Brussels

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THE CABINET is expected to accept a firm recommendation from Douglas Hurd today that he has secured the best deal on European voting the Government can hope for after two days of fierce negotiations in northern Greece.

Senior ministers were last night increasingly hopeful of concessions from Brussels this morning designed to limit the impact on Britain of contentious social legislation to clinch the compromise Mr Hurd brought back.

As the Cabinet heavyweights of the centre and left - including Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor and most important critic of the EU's voting proposals, rallied behind Mr Hurd - there were increasing signs that the Cabinet will back Mr Hurd and John Major by approving the deal.

Although the significant minority on the Cabinet's right wing will be deeply reluctant to accept the severely limited concessions made to Britain and Spain by their 10 European partners, they have to balance their opposition against their fears that Mr Hurd could decide he has no option but to resign if the Cabinet rejects the deal.

The Foreign Secretary made no threat to resign even in private during a hectic day of ministerial meetings at 10 Downing Street. But he his expected to tell the Cabinet today that the EU foreign ministers went as far they can go in accommodating British objections to raising the blocking minority to 27 votes after enlargement. 'They exhausted their ingenuity,' one senior minister said last night.

Mr Hurd is also expected to warn colleagues at what promises to be a difficult and divided Cabinet that if Britain seeks to reopen negotiations, the Netherlands, France and the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, who are unhappy with the compromise, will harden their opposition to making concessions to Britain.

The deal Mr Hurd will present secures two main concessions to soften the impact of Britain's reluctant acceptance that the blocking minority vote will rise to 27. One is that the declaration allowing a 23-vote minority to delay decisions will be legally binding. The other is that there is now no specific time attached to the possible delay.

Right-wingers may press for further safeguards, including a possible 'unilateral declaration' giving Britain's interpretation of the deal.

Meanwhile intensive negotiations were under way in Brussels between the UK ambassador to EU, Sir John Kerr, and Mr Delors to secure extra assurances that the EU will restrain its powers to impose social regulation on Britain under health and safety directives, which are approved by majority vote, or by evading the Social Chapter protocol achieved by John Major at Maastricht.

A bitterly contested works council directive could affect hundreds of multinational British companies.

There was no disguising that the mood of many Tory backbenchers ranged from what one MP called 'sullen acceptance' to outright opposition on the right. That was compounded by widespread bewilderment in all sections of the party that Mr Major had lifted expectations that there would be no compromise, in his outspoken criticism of European partners in the Commons last Tuesday.

The mood was modified by a characteristically sure-footed Commons performance by Mr Hurd, who told MPs there had been 'misconceptions' over the government position. Refusing to say what his recommendation would be, he added: 'We are not talking here about any threat to the veto of the UK. The only threat which comes to the veto of the UK comes from Labour at this time.'

Jack Cunningham, Labour foreign affairs spokesman, denounced the government negotiating stance as 'weakness and vacillation masquerading as strength'.