Major castigates ministers for scaremongering: Cabinet divisions on display as opposition parties fear PM is preparing a 'nightmare' Commons ploy on Maastricht

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The Independent Online
WITH JOHN MAJOR facing Commons defeat on Maastricht this Thursday, and humiliation in Christchurch one week later, Cabinet disarray went on full display yesterday as the Prime Minister repudiated two colleagues who had warned of the risk of an election and the return of a Labour government.

The threat of a Labour comeback was presented in the Christchurch by- election last Wednesday by Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, and in an Ulster radio interview on Saturday by Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

While Mr Brooke conjured up the Labour bogey as a deterrent to a Liberal Democrat protest vote in Christchurch, Sir Patrick warned Ulster Unionist MPs that if they voted against the Government on Thursday, they could precipitate a new alliance between Dublin and a Labour administration in London.

Mr Major's slapdown of a Labour return was hard and fast yesterday. 'I must say, I think that's extremely unlikely,' he told BBC television's On the Record. 'Labour are in a political Jurassic Park as far as I can see.'

The Prime Minister also underlined the deep division of Cabinet when he said in the same interview that the Maastricht treaty's Social Chapter amounted to backdoor socialism, and there was no question of the Government losing Thursday's last- ditch Commons vote on treaty ratification.

Some left-wing Cabinet colleagues have said privately that they would dump Mr Major's Social Chapter opt- out, if that was the only way of getting the treaty ratified; and some right- wing Cabinet members, who would oppose the Social Chapter at any price, believe Mr Major is at serious risk of Commons defeat on the issue.

The Prime Minister said Europe had created 'a very bitter dispute' and 'a great schism' in British politics, and he added: 'When I became Prime Minister, there was a crack in the ground, and I had one foot on either side of a widening crack about the problems on European policy.'

John Smith, the Labour leader, preferred another metaphor. He told BBC television's Breakfast with Frost: 'The Government's on the ropes, thoroughly unpopular throughout the country, facing possible parliamentary defeat in the House of Commons after a string of Commons debates in which they've been exposed as incompetent, as dithering, purposeless government.'

Privately, some of the Tory MPs who will vote against Mr Major on Thursday were even more scathing about their own leader. While Mr Major repeatedly insisted that the Commons vote was about the Social Chapter, and nothing but the Social Chapter, one rebel said: 'This is blind panic. The vote is about ratification of the treaty. It's about the future of the Prime Minister.'

Asked about his position, Mr Major said: 'I'm not in politics just to be Prime Minister, I'm in politics because there are things I want to do.' It was a measure of backbench despair that one Tory critic pounced on that as a hint that Mr Major might be willing to stand down.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats, however, feared that Mr Major was preparing to defy the will of the Commons if he was defeated on Thursday.

They believe it is possible that a combination of a dozen or so Tory rebels and the Opposition parties could carry Labour's amendment in favour of the Social Chapter. That amendment would then be embodied in the main motion of the night.

If the Government then abstained in that main vote, Labour's Social Chapter motion would be carried. However, the European Communities (Amendment) Bill says that any Social Chapter motion that is passed by the Commons will bring the legislation into force, giving the Government statutory authority to ratify the treaty - with its Social Chapter opt- out - once the current court action had been cleared.

That 'nightmare option' will be one of a number of issues to be discussed by Tory rebels at a Westminster meeting today, although some believe they have to take their courage in their hands and call the Government's perceived bluff. 'You've got to win on the first vote; you've got to go hell for leather,' one said.

Anticipating the ploy of a Government abstention on the main motion, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said yesterday that if a Commons majority backed ratification with the Social Chapter, it would be Mr Major's 'moral and political duty to accept Parliament's decision'.

Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said that if Mr Major defied the will of the House, 'in my view such an action would merit the response of a vote of censure by the House of Commons'.