Government slips free of Maastricht defeats: Retreat denies MPs a vote on Social Chapter

The Government slipped free of embarrassing Commons defeat over the Maastricht treaty last night, avoiding votes on which a cross-party coalition threatened its majority.

In the first tactical retreat of the day, Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, announced during question time that the Government would not oppose New Clause 75. That clause, dubbed a 'ticking timebomb' by Labour, had created an alliance over the treaty's Social Chapter that could well have defeated the Government.

Having initially opposed it, government sources said yesterday that the clause was defective; rather than blocking treaty ratification, it could be safely and legally ignored. That decision was immediately condemned by George Robertson, Labour spokesman on Europe, as an 'outrageous' denial of expected Commons opinion.

But the decision also heightened the pressure on Michael Morris, chairman of the Bill's committee stage, to accede to all- party demands for a vote on Amendment 27 - an alternative Opposition attempt to derail the treaty over John Major's Social Chapter opt-out. Mr Morris caused consternation, however, when he then told the committee of the whole House that he stood by his ruling that there should be no vote on Amendment 27.

Jack Cunningham, Labour foreign affairs spokesman, led calls to reconsider that 'very dangerous' decision, which 'cheated' the House of a vote, and Bryan Gould, who resigned from the Shadow Cabinet over Maastricht, raised the possibility of a motion of no confidence in Mr Morris. To try to defuse the tension of the Chamber, Mr Morris agreed to a motion to end the day's proceedings forthwith.

That gave Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, an opportunity to deliver an impassioned onslaught, winning strong support from across the House when he said while other EC countries could have referendums, the Commons was not even allowed to have a vote - if the Government faced defeat. 'It stinks to high heaven,' he said.

The Government then further conceded the weakness of its position by refusing to force a vote to continue the day's scheduled debate on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. The debate ended soon after 7pm.

But the Government's critics said they lived to fight another day on Amendment 27, when the Bill comes back to the House for its report stage. James Cran, a leading Tory rebel, said: 'They are not off the hook yet. Amendment 27 is the key . . . . We are in the business of trying to wreck this treaty, and we are not beaten yet.'