There were signs of confusion among the Tory rebels last night after Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, informed MPs about the ruling by Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General. Lord Tebbit, the cheerleader for the rebels, accused the Government of 'sharp tricks'.
Mr Hurd told the Commons that the Attorney General had advised that if the Government was defeated and a Labour amendment on the Social Chapter was passed, it would not form part of domestic law, because the Social Chapter was not going to apply to Britain under the treaty.
That legal opinion produced a volte-face by the Government which had warned that the Labour amendment would wreck the European Communities (Amendment) Bill and Britain's prospects of ratifying the Maastricht treaty.
However, Lord Tebbit urged the Tory rebels to stand firm and vote with Labour and the Liberal Democrats for the amendment. 'There are more things than that that can trip the Government up in this,' said the former Conservative Party chairman on the BBC 2's Newsnight.
Accusing the Government of 'procedural trickery', George Robertson, the Labour spokesman, said the Government's action was 'wholly contemptible'. 'There is no new amendment. There can be no new amendment. We need no new amendment. All we need is a Government willing to listen to the voice of Parliament,' Mr Robertson said.
Mr Hurd said he understood the irritation on all sides that the legal position had not been made clear before: 'Now it is clear, it is clear.'
In a Commons statement on
20 January Tristan Garel-Jones, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, insisted that if the amendment succeeded, UK law would be out of line with the provisions of the treaty, which the UK would then be unable to ratify.
That view, said yesterday to be based on advice from Foreign Office lawyers, was abandoned as wrong as Mr Hurd adopted the opinion of the Attorney General and the Lord Advocate, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry QC. The Prime Minister was absent from the Commons throughout the debate.
Incorporation of the opt-out was now only 'desirable', Mr Hurd said, not necessary. Despite the claim that passing the amendment would be irrelevant, there are two potential hitches. If the Government lost on amendment 27, it would have no statutory authority for paying the costs of implementing the Social Chapter in the other 11 EC member states.
The other problem is the absence of an obvious defence if a UK complainant claimed rights under the chapter in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Neither point was dealt with adequately by Mr Hurd.
Looking distinctly uncomfortable during what amounted to a Commons apology, he said that he wished he had consulted the law officers earlier.
He said their advice had been announced at 'the earliest practical opportunity'. They were willing to be present during the rest of the Bill's committee stage to answer questions.
Dealing with the issue of the differing legal advice, Mr Hurd said: 'In this kind of situation there are legal considerations on either side of the argument. At the end of the day the question is not which are more legally valid but which set of considerations are more important.'
Labour insisted it would press on for the change to the Bill, contained in amendment 27, which will have the continued support of the Liberal Democrats.
Sir Russell Johnston, Liberal Democrat European spokesman, said: 'It seems that where there is a political way there is a legal way. It also seems that there is no political will to allow Parliament to express its will on the Social Chapter.'
Tory rebels, who might need only 11 votes to defeat the Government, said the Foreign Secretary's statement would not halt their revolt. 'There is a hard core of at least 11 who will vote against the Government. This (announcement) will make no difference,' said one leading rebel.
But Tory supporters of the treaty said Mr Hurd's statement would help to break the rebels. 'This is bound to make them think again. What is the point in voting against the Government now?' said Hugh Dykes, chairman of the pro-Maastricht European Movement.
Labour's pledge, page 6
Leading article, Letters, page 14
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