"What I object to is working conditions being dictated from Brussels when they should be determined here in this House," the Prime Minister told the Commons to loud Tory cheers.
But the consensus in both Brussels and Westminster last night was that Mr Major was striking a posture for political effect, to help him unite his own party and to paint Labour as a party of Brussels poodles.
Mr Major said that unless the United Kingdom was exempted from the directive, and all further attempts at imposed "social engineering", he would veto the new European treaty currently being negotiated by the 15 member states.
Mocking Mr Major's stance, Tony Blair told MPs: "Isn't this just back to beef, where, five months on, they've not even got the gelatine ban lifted?"
It was the old tactic, the Labour leader said. "They seize on an issue, they talk tough, they alienate everybody, and then they cave in. The law which gives the right to people for a minimum holiday is not the issue upon which to launch Beef War Mark 2"
Liberal Democrat MP Menzies Campbell said: "Britain will never influence Europe so long as it sulks in its tent."
Tory Euro-sceptics jumped at the chance to demand a further round of BSE-style non-cooperation, which was immediately ruled out by Mr Major. The most outspoken critic, Teresa Gorman, told The Independent: "The Prime Minister is in the position of the eunuch; he can't do anything. They have ways of making us conform."
From the other side of the Tory divide, Edwina Currie said: "Thumping the table in Europe is childish, petulant and useless. It makes our partners turn away in disgust and they no longer listen to the serious points we make."
Deep scepticism was also shown in Brussels, where British officials immediately demanded an "opt-out" from the directive.
Almost as soon as the court's decision was delivered, Sir Stephen Wall, Britain's ambassador to the European Union, tabled proposals for the opt- out at a meeting of the inter-governmental conference (IGC), which is up-dating the Maastricht Treaty.
Sir Stephen also demanded that the new treaty should re-write health and safety powers, currently governed by majority voting, to allow a national veto. The demands for a new working hours "opt-out", to extend the existing social chapter opt-out, and for a veto of further health and safety measures, are highly unlikely to be agreed by other European member states in their IGC talks - which are not scheduled to be concluded until next June.
As Mr Blair pointed out in the Commons, that "conveniently" followed an expected May election, which the Conservatives could lose.
Ian Lang, President of the Board of Trade, told the Commons: "This House should not seek to disobey the law. "We obey the law until we can secure a change in it, and we are determined to secure that change in the law through lawful means."
Mr Lang said earlier that the Government expected to take two to three months to consult business and industry about the implementation of the new law, which would then be speedily introduced, in a matter of weeks, by Statutory Instrument.
Underlining the importance of the battle, Mr Major sent a letter to Jacques Santer, the Commission President, and his 14 fellow-leaders, warning them of the fight ahead. "I attach the utmost importance to these amendments," he said, "and I shall insist that they form part of the outcome of the inter-governmental conference."
A buoyant Padraig Flynn, European commissioner for social affairs, confirmed yesterday that the Commission is now planning to propose an extension of the working hours directive to workers currently exempted, including junior doctors, fishermen and transport workers.
Mr Flynn hit back at Mr Major, who has accused the Commission of bringing in the working hours measure through the "back door", saying Britain was now trying to "break down the door" by re-writing the treaty in the IGC.
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