The Prime Minister last night decided to meet head-on a Labour threat to unite with the Ulster Unionists to defeat the Government in a Commons debate on Europe next week.
Raising the stakes and putting his leadership on the line, John Major has decided to open the debate for the Government. Labour had intended to field Robin Cook to open for the Opposition, but Tony lair will now lead the Labour attack.
The set-piece debate in the House on Wednesday will be the first trial of strength for the Major administration since the Ulster Unionists threatened to withdraw their support in protest at the Framework Document. Mr Major's decision to lead from the front in the debate was not discussed at the weekly cabinet yesterday. He decided to do so after consulting close colleagues, including the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. His friends said Mr Major calculated he would have a "following wind" behind him after his success in launching the Anglo-Irish peace initiative.
Labour whips said last night that the vote was "too close to call" but they were jubilant at the Prime Minister's decision to lead for the Government, increasing the impression of crisis. The "whipless" Tory rebels are expected to abstain, reducing the Government's overall majority of 12 to only three . There are also two MPs who are seriously ill, reducing the majority on paper to one vote.
It would take only a defection by a handful of Tory MPs to defeat the Government. Cabinet sources said last night that the Government did not regard the vote as an issue of confidence, but if the Government is defeated, Mr Major is almost certain to put down a vote of confidence in the Government, probably on Thursday, which he would expect to win.
The desertion of the Ulster Unionists is unlikely to force the Government into a March or April general election, but Labour believes it will mark the beginning of a debilitating war of attrition, which could bring down the Government before the end of the year. Some Euro-sceptic Tories are angry at the alleged betrayal of the Ulster Unionists and there are renewed threats by senior Tories to Mr Major's leadership. The nine Ulster Unionist MPs, led by James Molyneaux, will meet their executive today before announcing their response to the Framework Document, but they have already made it clear they regard it as a nationalist agenda for a united Ireland.
The Labour motion on Europe was tailor-made to gain the support of the Unionists, who have said they would support the Government so long as it was in the interests of the UK and Northern Ireland in particular. One leading Unionist MP said: "We don't think the Government is working in the interests of the UK."
The Labour motion says: "This House does not support HMG policy towards the European Union and does not believe it promotes the interests of the ritish people."
It was also drawn so broadly that Tory Euro-sceptics said they could support it, though none were prepared to do so last night, because of the risk of losing the Tory whip.
One of the leading whipless Tory MPs said: "I am tempted to vote with Labour." The nine are expected to abstain, but some may see it as a way back into the party, and vote with the Government. The Liberal Democrats are expected to vote with Labour.
Mr Cook said: "This motion gives all members of the House of Commons the opportunity to express their view on the Government's policy ... Everyone who is critical will have the chance to register that criticism."
A cabinet minister said Mr Major had decided to open the debate because he "feels it is an excellent opportunity to make an authoritative statement on European policy".
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