Maastricht choice: retreat or defeat: Government likely to accept amendment on Social Chapter opt-out as Speaker agrees to allow Commons vote

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The Independent Online
The Government last night faced a stark choice between retreat or defeat - on the eve of the Newbury and county council polls - after Betty Boothroyd, the Commons Speaker, agreed to allow a crunch vote on the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty.

As MPs turned to the report stage of the Bill incorporating the provisions of the treaty into domestic law, Miss Boothroyd put the Government on the spot by giving MPs a choice between two amendments on John Major's Social Chapter opt-out.

The Speaker ruled that the House could vote first on a Tory backbench dissidents' new clause, blocking UK contributions towards the cost of Social Chapter administration for the other 11 EC members.

She then added, however, that if that was carried by the House, there could be no vote on Amendment 2 - tabled by John Smith, and backed by a cross-party majority of the House

deleting the social protocol from the Bill.

After hurried meetings with legal advisers and rebel colleagues, Bill Cash, the leading Tory sponsor of the new clause, withdrew it - leaving the way open for a vote on Amendment 2.

But there were strong indications last night that the Government would retreat rather than face defeat on that challenge.

The Prime Minister's office said ministers had been advised, presumably by the Law Officers, that neither the new clause nor the amendment would stop ratification of the treaty, a statement regarded on all sides as a signal of impending surrender.

Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said: 'The Government's record so far on this Bill has been one of manoeuvre to avoid defeat on substantive issues; I would not be at all surprised if they accept the amendment.'

He later told ITN's Channel Four News: 'They seem to be treating Maastricht like some bendy rubber duck; shape it, twist it, bite it, alter it, it springs back into shape. Whatever the House of Commons does isn't going to affect the Government's view of the Maastricht treaty.

'They're saying to the Commons, 'Do what you like, we're not going to change one iota of the treaty and its implications for Britain'.'

Meanwhile, ministers were playing the Government's hand close to the chest on its precise response when Amendment 2 comes up for debate some time today.

But if they did decide to accept Amendment 2, they would not be able to sell their retreat as victory, or as a matter of no consequence - because Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, told the Commons in February that they wanted the social protocol incorporated into British law.

Mr Hurd said then that incorporation was 'desirable', and Sir Nicholas went further still, telling MPs: 'Amendments that seek to omit or amend provisions on Community treaties must be strongly resisted.

'It is important - this is not a matter of the tightest law, but it is very important as a matter of legislative practice - to preserve consistency between our domestic law and Community law as it is applicable to the United Kingdom.'

If, as expected, the Government does decide that discretion is the better part of valour, two routes would be open for near-certain legal challenge by Tory rebels: one, through the domestic courts; the other, in the European Court.

Once the legislation has been enacted - and before ratification - it is expected that the outright opponents of the Maastricht treaty will ask for a High Court ruling on the legality of government plans to ratify it, and pay Social Chapter costs, on the back of legislation that excludes the social protocol.

But the Government, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats have all received legal advice that ministers would be able to go ahead with ratification even if Amendment 2 was carried into law.

The big, unresolved question is whether the Government would be over-ruled by the European Court - for not preserving the very consistency between European and domestic law that Sir Nicholas drew attention to last February.

He told the Commons on 22 February: 'After we had been the subject of infraction proceedings, and if the European Court ruled against us - we do our best not to be in that position - it would be necessary for us to come back to the House and move amending legislation to render our domestic law in conformity with Community law.'

Retreat today, however, would leave the Government free to fight that battle - and face that defeat - another day.