With the odds beginning to stack against Mr Major, the Government is making contingency plans for defeat. The Prime Minister's office said yesterday that the Government would seek to overturn a Commons defeat in the House of Lords.
Conservative loyalists were urging Mr Major not to make it an issue of confidence. One senior Tory backbencher said: 'He shouldn't put his neck on the line this time.' Mr Major used that threat to win over some Tory waverers during the Maastricht debate division in November, which the Government survived with a majority of three. However, the vote, expected sometime in the next month on a Labour amendment to the Maastricht treaty Bill, will challenge his authority.
The Government warned the rebels that a defeat on the Social Chapter would force the 12 EC members to renegotiate the treaty - a view confirmed by legal advisers to the European Commission. Labour leaders insisted the treaty would not be wrecked because the 11 other member states would agree to the Social Chapter being included.
Ministers privately accused the rebels of being 'cynical' and 'unprincipled' for supporting an unholy alliance with Labour on the Social Chapter, which they oppose. Most of the rebels were refusing to say which way they intend to vote, to avoid arm-twisting by the Government.
'The pressure they were under in November will be like nothing compared to this time because Major is so personally involved in this,' a Liberal Democrat source said. 'It is open to the Government at every stage to pull the Bill and duck ratification. If Major were to do that, it would be the ultimate betrayal.'
A couple of the anti-Maastricht die-hards broke cover. Sir Teddy Taylor and James Cran, among the 26 who rebelled in November, said they would vote with Labour. Mr Cran said: 'We have not come all this way to stumble at the last fence. We are looking to amend the Bill. I am a pragmatist . . . If we can win a vote, we should go for it.' Nicholas Winterton, another rebel, said: 'If there is a way of torpedoing the treaty, then we owe it to the country to do so.'
Sir Teddy denied that by supporting the amendment the rebels would be adding the costs of the Social Chapter to UK businesses through a European minimum wage and employment protection rules.
Rebels are confident they have more than the 11 Tory votes needed to wipe out Mr Major's majority. Labour and Liberal Democrats are committed to opposing the Government on the Social Chapter.
The rebels risk having the whip removed, which would prevent their standing as candidates - a threat not being taken seriously because it would further weaken the party's majority.Reuse content