Major now assured of Maastricht majority: PM demands party unity from backbenchers as Chancellor spells out 'open' economic planning

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JOHN MAJOR assured himself of a majority in next Wednesday's Commons vote on Maastricht last night, with a speech to Tory backbenchers in which he demanded party unity, admitted a government mistake on pit closures he would not forget - and tantalisingly mentioned a popular 'package of measures' to help to ignite economic recovery.

Some Tory MPs speculated later that the Prime Minister's talk of a package 'accompanying' and 'associated with' Norman Lamont's Autumn Statement on 12 November suggested measures that went well beyond the normal public spending round; something amounting to an emergency Budget for jobs and growth.

'The top priority for this Government is to secure an economic recovery as soon as we can produce one,' Mr Major told a special meeting of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee. He added that the Chancellor's package would 'win the approval' of his party.

As for the immediate problem of Maastricht, Mr Major underlined the Cabinet's earlier decision to confront the diehard Tory critics with a clear-cut motion on Maastricht next week - to be decided 'on its merits', and not as an issue of confidence. He warned his backbenchers that Britain would need allies if it was to make progress at the EC summit in Edinburgh on 11 December, and added: 'Why should we be able to tell France not to rat on Gatt, if we rat on Maastricht?'

If Britain put itself on the sidelines, it would allow the other

11 EC countries 'to gang up on what they see as perfidious Albion', and to open up the possibility of a push for federalism.

'We need to establish confidence in the British economy, strengthen the credibility and authority of Britain in Europe,' he said. 'It is not a glorious posture for this country to hide behind the Danes.'

Earlier, during Commons question time, John Smith had raised the stakes with a direct attack on the Prime Minister's decision to go back on last month's parliamentary pledge on the Maastricht treaty legislation: that it would not be returned to the House before the Danish referendum problem had been clarified and before subsidiarity had been settled and put in place.

Having already been guaranteed the support of 19 Liberal Democrat MPs in a letter from Paddy Ashdown, the Prime Minister pounced hard on the Labour leader, accusing him of 'wriggling' away from Labour's pro- EC policies.

'If he can't keep his principles in Opposition, he will stay in Opposition,' Mr Major said to a roar of Tory backbench support.

His rumbustious Commons performance was consolidated by the speech to the 1922 Committee. Described by some MPs as the best he had made since he became Prime Minister, he delivered a carefully-crafted attempt to win over MPs who have been battered by the recent, 'extraordinary' run of crises.

The heart of his appeal came with a call for a return to traditional loyalties. 'Supporters of the Government are entitled to harry us, criticise us, even oppose us. That is proper, that is democracy; the run of politics that I accept,' Mr Major said.

'It is not reasonable to take opposition to extremes, to take matters to television studios first and ministers second; to denounce government without discussing with government . . . The manifesto is not an a la carte menu from which to choose the juicy and popular measures.'

Promising a more 'consultative' dialogue between ministers and MPs in future, he said his own door would always be open to those with doubts and ideas. But he also warned: 'The Conservative Party, when it is united, is a formidable fighting force. The Conservative Party, when it is divided, is not the party I know and I loved and I joined . . . Let us put aside the squabbling and get on to the discussing.' They owed that to themselves, party activists in the constituencies, and the millions who voted for them in April.

Mr Major directly addressed two of the Maastricht 'myths' uppermost in MPs' minds - saying that ratification would not force a return to the exchange rate mechanism (ERM) and assured them that on immigration 'it did not mean Britain would be required to take in anybody we don't want to'.

There was no plan to rush through the detailed Commons consideration of the Maastricht Bill by Christmas, or any question of an early return to the ERM.

Sterling's withdrawal from the ERM, Mr Major said, had been caused by German monetary policy, the uncertainty of the French referendum, the difficulties of the dollar and the indiscretions of the president of the Bundesbank. It had 'very little' to do with the pound itself.

Mr Major said that he hoped for further cuts in interest rates, without risking the Government's inflation targets.

As for the current spending round - on which the Cabinet had its first discussion yesterday, to be followed by the first of a number of special Cabinet sessions next Monday - the Prime Minister was warmly applauded when he repeated the emphasis that would be paid to capital projects.

But he warned that current spending would have to take some of the strain, with some difficult decisions. 'People have to recognise that it is easy to support them in principle and in theory; it is less easy to support them in practice. But that has to to be done.'

He then sugared that pill, adding: 'Accompanying the Autumn Statement, there will be a package of measures'.

Mr Major was helped yesterday by reports that Baroness Thatcher had been attempting to subborn some younger Conservative MPs to vote against the Government on Maastricht. One senior backbencher said: 'It is disgraceful beyond description.'

Her increasing isolation will bolster Mr Major's appeal for unity.

Nevertheless, there are many battles ahead, not least associated with threats emanating from the public spending talks - on public sector pay, welfare benefits, and overseas aid.

But after his Commons attack and his 1922 Committee defence, Mr Major was assured of a Commons win on Maastricht next week - after which he should be guaranteed an improved majority for the remaining proceedings on the Bill.