Senior government sources made clear that collective Cabinet responsibility for the Maastricht Bill gives the lie to Lord Tebbit's suggestion on Friday that the Prime Minister, rather than the Government, would fall if the Bill were blocked in the Commons.
Lord Tebbit, who opposes Maastricht, said defeat of the Bill would 'merely mean that the Conservative Party would have to choose a new leader . . . I'm not worried that it would result in a general election'.
Government Whips have been making it clear to backbenchers that if the Maastricht treaty - one of the most important planks of government policy - fails to get through Parliament, a general election will be called.
A prominent Cabinet member has suggested privately that since Mr Major's negotiating strategy was agreed by the entire Cabinet he would be no more personally vulnerable than the rest of his colleagues in the event of a defeat.
That analysis calls into question interpretations of the private remark attributed to Mr Major last week that if the party did not trust him on Europe, 'they had better find someone they do trust'.
Mr Major has told colleagues that, whatever other policy shifts the Government has made, it cannot change on Maastricht, because of the loss of economic and political influence Britain would suffer. 'Little Englanders' are ignoring political reality, he believes. Mr Major, who will introduce the Bill's paving debate on 4 November, has told the Cabinet that when he came to office he found that Britain still enjoyed a reputation among its Community partners as 'Perfidious Albion'.
Cabinet sources say Mr Major believes that only Britain can take a leading role in shaping a non- federalist EC. In unspoken contrast with his predecessor he is said to see himself as 'fighting for real influence not for just another John Bull victory or a tabloid headline'.
Mr Major won backing even from Euro-sceptics in the Cabinet last Thursday for his resolve to bring back the Bill next month, on the grounds it would otherwise be impossible to make headway at the Edinburgh summit in December.
But one backbench critic of the Government has openly challenged Mr Major's strategy. James Cran, MP for Beverley, said: 'It will be trench warfare in the House of Commons if he introduces this particular Bill. My colleagues and myself are absolutely determined to oppose the Bill whatever they say.'
It would still be open for the Government to call a confidence motion after a defeat for the Bill - the course that Labour still think is the most likely. The Opposition, which has yet to decide its own tactics, is likely to treat Mr Major's election threat as a ploy to bring rebel MPs into line. However Tony Banks, a frontbench spokesman, said yesterday: 'If we can bring down the wretched government via Maastricht, then it is clearly something we ought to do.'
It was confirmed yesterday that the Government will be able to rely on the support of the 20 Liberal Democrat MPs.
Meanwhile, ministers are fighting to stave off a dramatic squeeze in funding for the council tax following Mr Major's decision to protect capital projects in the public spending negotiations.
With officials admitting that the figures being discussed are nowhere near the initial pounds 2bn bid, there are fears the Government could repeat its poll tax fiasco, where insufficient public money was allowed to ease introduction of the new tax. Hopes of gaining a sizeable cushion to help introduce the new tax have suffered a setback with the new emphasis on protecting infrastructure projects.
Ministers at the Department of the Environment have warned the Treasury that a squeeze on councils' total standard spending, or a draconian capping regime, could force authorities to lay off thousands of workers. Ministers see a public sector pay freeze, encompassing workers whose earnings are usually determined by pay review bodies, such as teachers, as preferable to a spending squeeze that would put thousands on the dole.
Britain's future, pages 15-18
Leading article, page 24
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