Major accused of blundering over poll threat: Ministers and backbench loyalists believe the stakes over Maastricht treaty vote have been needlessly raised by PM

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JOHN MAJOR came under fierce and unprecedented attack from some of his own ministers and Tory backbench loyalists yesterday for badly 'mishandling' tactics on next Wednesday's Commons debate on the Maastricht treaty.

One minister scathingly attacked talk of an election - which he directly attributed to the Prime Minister - as 'petulant, silly and pathetic', and one of the strongest Tory Maastricht supporters complained: 'He's not helping us.'

Across the party, Mr Major and No 10 colleagues were accused of 'ineptitude' in needlessly raising the stakes in next week's Commons vote, which paves the way for the detailed committee stage examination of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill before the EC summit in Edinburgh on 11 December.

With some Tory rebels speaking of the possibility of more than 30 backbenchers voting against the Government - enough to defeat it - the onslaught centred on Mr Major's reportedly suggesting that his future as Prime Minister was at stake, and then developing that to argue that if he fell, an election would be inevitable. Even some Cabinet members were distancing themselves from that 'absurdity' yesterday.

But there was little doubt at Westminster last night that the Tory party had been brought to the boil not just by the 'incompetence' over Maastricht, but also by a series of policy changes ranging from the abortive defence of David Mellor through the suspension of sterling from the ERM to the debacle over pit closures and the sudden decision to go for economic growth. Whatever the motives for disaffection, Mr Major's authority has been very badly damaged.

Recognising and responding to the seething anger in the ranks over Maastricht yesterday, the Prime Minister's office tried to douse the election 'speculation', while refusing to rule it out.

However, if the Government lost next week's motion, Mr Major would have no constitutional alternative but to return immediately to the Commons with a motion of confidence - to save the cornerstone of his foreign policy. He has nailed his colours so firmly to the Maastricht mast that, in proposing any motion of confidence, he would be compelled to warn his backbench rebels that if they saved the Government in that vote, they would be backing a continuation of the same Maastricht proceedings they had previously opposed.

That point was driven home by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, who told the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday that Maastricht was a 'central part of the Government's programme, and will be presented as such'. The Prime Minister's office said Mr Major 'believes this is absolutely crucial to the maintenance of a sensible foreign policy'.

The right-wing Tory 92 Group last night urged Richard Ryder, the Government Chief Whip, to hold a free vote next week, and put off the Bill until next year. Leading members said they were dismayed at the handling of the issue.

But Sir Norman Fowler, chairman of the Conservative Party, told Radio 4's Today programme: 'I have to say to colleagues who aim to defeat the Government that they are playing with fire because they don't know what the consequences of that are going to be.'

Government confusion did not end with the to-and-fro talk of an election. Last Thursday, Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, said he expected next week's Maastricht paving motion would be 'substantive'. That would open the way for amendment, giving Labour an opportunity to vote against the sudden return of the Bill to the House, which it would do. The party says it will do this because the Government had promised that no action would be taken to ratify the treaty before Danish intentions were clear and firm procedures for subsidiarity had been put in place. Neither precondition had yet been satisfied, Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, repeated yesterday.

A clear-cut government motion on Maastricht would be supported by 19 of the 20 Liberal Democrat MPs. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: 'It's not a question of helping Mr Major defeat his rebels (but) of helping Britain face up to its future in Europe.'

Yesterday, however, the Prime Minister's office said no decision had yet been taken on the motion; it might be a technical motion for the adjournment of the House after a debate, with no mention of Maastricht. While that face-saving device would attract the support of some potential Tory rebels, including the 92 Group, the Liberal Democrats warned last night that they would vote against it.

With Mr Major and senior Cabinet colleagues determined to face down the rebel 'rump', the chances of that further humiliating U-turn being sanctioned looked small last night. But such was the state of Tory uncertainty that few were betting against it.