Major declares war on Euro-rebels

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The Independent Online
John Major yesterday staked the future of his government on a Bill to increase British contributions to the European Union in a high-risk attempt to crush the running backbench rebellion that has dogged his leadership.

In terms that left Tory MPs in no doubt that the Bill's defeat would mean a general election, the Prime Minister told the Commons that the passage of the Bill - which will be one of the first of the new session - was ``inescapably a matter of confidence''.

Mr Major's open demonstration - backed by senior Cabinet ministers - that he was determined not to repeat the parliamentary chaos that threatened the Maastricht Bill last year overshadowed an unsurprising and mainly consolidatory list of 13 new Bills in yesterday's Queen's Speech.

There were strong early signs that most rebels - already divided on tactics over the Bill - were falling into line, with varying degrees of anger and reluctance, in the face of the Government's tough new stance. The hard core of half a dozen rebels still refusing last night to surrender publicly is almost certainly too small to defeat the Bill.

Labour, whose leader, Tony Blair, derided Mr Major for whipping up a ``quite extraordinary furore'' over the Bill, plans to exploit his decision to make it a confidence issue by framing an amendment designed to put the Government under pressure - and possibly attract at least a handful of right-wing Tory rebels.

Among Labour's options are a repeat of the amendment, calling for Britain to sign up to the Social Chapter, that nearly wrecked the Maastricht Bill - though that might not be accepted by Commons clerks. Another would be a demand for wholesale reform of the Common Agricultural Policy or decisive measures to combat EU fraud, which one hardline rebel, Tony Marlow, implied yesterday he would support.

Ministers are, however, increasingly confident that, with the support of a vast majority of Tory backbenchers and the Ulster Unionists, they will see off the rebellion.

The Bill, which gradually increases Britain's EU contributions by pounds 250m a year until the end of the century, in accordance with a deal reached two years ago, could be published before the end of the week. Ministers intend to rush its full passage through well before Christmas, possibly in a single day on the eve of the Budget on 29 November.

Mr Major told the Commons: ``No one should doubt the importance of securing the Bill unchanged and early. There's no room for compromise on this Bill. This means its successful passage - in all its essentials - is inescapably a matter of confidence because of the agreements reached with our European partners.''

Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, confirmed on Channel 4 News last night that defeat for the Bill would mean a general election.

Mr Blair, in his first Commons speech as party leader, said: ``It has surely come to something when a government can only secure the passage of its legislative programme by threatening its own demise.''

The Queen's Speech, as expected, contained only two modest privatisation measures - the research arm of the Atomic Energy Authority and the Crown Agents - and for the first time in six years contains no educational reforms.

Turning to Northern Ireland, Mr Major, speaking on the eve of the first visit to Great Britain by the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, in a decade, emphasised that London and Dublin had agreed that planned cross-border bodies would not involve the ``joint authority'' feared by Unionists.


- Proposals to increase budget contributions to the EU

- Retirement age to be 65 for both men and women

- Jobseeker's allowance replacing benefits for unemployed

- Improved job and other rights for the disabled

- New environmental protection agencies

- Strengthened powers to supervise the mentally ill

Rebels fume, page 2

Queen's Speech, pages 12, 13

Leading article, page 19

Andrew Marr, page 21