Major faces Cabinet split if he loses Maastricht vote

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JOHN MAJOR is facing a Cabinet split over the tactics the Government should adopt if it is defeated in Parliament over Maastricht. A defeat could arise if Tory rebels unite behind a Labour amendment which seeks to force the Government to accept the social chapter.

That became clear yesterday as a senior minister suggested that some pro-European members of the Government would rather see the Prime Minister reluctantly accept the social chapter after a decisive vote in Parliament than abandon the treaty altogether.

The senior minister said: 'Our own rebels should not assume that there is no risk that they will end up being held responsible for forcing the British government to adopt the social chapter.'

Any pressure within the Cabinet on Mr Major to adopt the chapter would cause the deep rift within the Government's upper echelons over Europe that Mr Major has deftly avoided since taking office in November 1990. Most ministers believe that Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, and probably also Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, would resign rather than accept the social chapter - precipitating as many as 15 more resignations at junior ministerial level.

There is no enthusiasm for the chapter - from which Mr Major negotiated an opt-out at Maastricht, to near-unanimous acclaim from the Tory party - even among strongly pro-European members of the Cabinet. The Foreign Office is currently taking legal advice on the impact of the amendment and some senior ministers are confident, first that it will not be passed, and second that even if it is it will not stop the Government ratifying the treaty, complete with the social chapter opt-out.

But the senior source said that, faced with the unpalatable choice between a treaty and including the chapter, and no treaty at all, he would argue for the latter.

The ministerial warning will be greeted with deep scepticism by the Euro-rebels, partly because of the frequent statements of outright opposition to the chapter made not only by Mr Major himself but even Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary.

They are likely to see the warning as part of a whispering campaign designed to destabilise the rebellion in the Tory ranks.

But the warning is in tune with the genuine private views of a number of government ministers who believe that the chapter is an irritant compared with the catastrophic effects on the British economy - and its international reputation - of ditching the treaty.

One minister suggested last week that there was a Commons majority in favour of the chapter, since a significant minority, at the very least, of pro-European Tory backbenchers would rather see a treaty incorporating the chapter than no treaty at all.

Is Major up to it? Pages 23-26