Cabinet tells treaty rebels: you can't win: Liberal Democrat support and threat of election should ensure passage of Maastricht Bill

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THE CABINET rallied to the support of the Prime Minister's determined stand on the Maastricht treaty yesterday, warning that no matter how many Conservative rebels voted against the Government on 4 November, they could not win.

The Independent was told by one senior Cabinet source that if the rebels were hoping for the replacement of John Major as leader of the party, they should understand that none of the potential successors would offer himself on anything other than a total commitment to Maastricht.

Defeat for Mr Major would therefore mean an election, and the probability of a Labour government which would be committed to Maastricht 'red in tooth and claw' - a treaty including the Social Chapter on which the Prime Minister won a British opt- out last year.

Underlining the Cabinet's 'all- for-one' unity behind the Prime Minister, Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary and a minister widely tipped as an eventual leadership contender, said: 'You can't have the 20, 30, 40 Euro-rebels determining the government of the country when the 22 men and women in the Cabinet and the vast majority of Conservative MPs actually want to proceed to ratify Maastricht.' He told Radio 4's The World this Weekend they could not be allowed to call the tune to which the majority marched, adding: 'They cannot be the tail that wags the dog'.

Lord Parkinson, a former party chairman, said election threats were not credible. 'I don't think that any Conservative prime minister is going to hand over the government of this country to the Labour Party voluntarily.' But a senior Cabinet minister replied last night: 'Who among us is going to replace John Major? Kenneth Baker? The one who was in favour of Maastricht, or the one now against it?'

As for Labour's intentions, Mr Clarke said it would be an act of unbelievable cynicism if the Opposition voted against the Government in 10 days, when the resumption of European Communities (Amendment) Bill is to be considered.

But John Prescott, the Labour transport spokesman, told TV- am's Even on Sunday that the Commons motion on the Bill would amount to a vote of confidence in Mr Major and it would be Labour's job to vote against it. 'This is a prime minister, in Egypt now, who's telling all the political correspondents that he's walking across the coal fires, with vipers and fangs beneath him . . . I think the man is losing his marbles.'

Even if Labour did vote against the return of the ratification legislation to the Commons before the 11 December EC summit in Edinburgh, the Government is assured of the support of at least 19 of the 20 Liberal Democrats. That effectively increases Mr Major's majority from 21 to 59 - requiring at least 30 Conservative rebels to ensure government defeat.

Meanwhile, Mr Major told The World this Weekend: 'I do not want to see a Britain, isolated and sour, without influence in the largest free-market trading block the world has ever seen. I am placing before the House of Commons a policy I believe to be in the interests of my country. That is my responsibility.'

The Prime Minister's office said that while he was more bullish than ever about Maastricht ratification, he was frustrated that his broader message about an enlarged, non-federalist, prosperous and peaceful Europe was not getting across to the country at large, and he was considering how to put that right.

Mr Major believed that Britain had lost out on four historic opportunities in the past: failing to join the EC at its foundation in 1957; the refusal of De Gaulle to admit the Macmillan and Wilson governments in the 1960s; and the high price exacted by the Community for eventual British entry in 1973. He was determined that Britain should not create a fifth lost opportunity - by allowing the the defeat of the Maastricht treaty.