Major squares up to Tory critics: Maastricht treaty 'back in Commons by Christmas'

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The Independent Online
THE PRIME Minister put Conservative critics on notice last night that the controversial Maastricht treaty legislation could return to the Commons by Christmas, or soon afterwards.

John Major's change of political gear came after a week of close consultation with other EC heads of government, who have been pressing him for early ratification of the treaty.

In broadcast interviews last night - designed to reassert his grip on a drifting political situation - Mr Major strongly repeated his support for Norman Lamont, the Chancellor; said sterling was not expected to rejoin the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM) for the 'foreseeable future'; and, having accepted a German apology for leaking a confidential Bundesbank note on events surrounding the sterling crisis, drew a line under the Anglo-German 'war of words'.

But John Smith, the Labour leader, said in Blackpool that the Prime Minister's statements were totally inadequate. 'He says he wants an end to the war of words. It isn't a war of words, it's a deep disagreement about the facts.'

Nevertheless, the most significant element of Mr Major's post- Cabinet package was the determined change of emphasis on the Maastricht Bill. Last week, Mr Major said the legislation would not be returned to the House until it was clear how the Danes were going to stage another referendum, and a 'settled' demarcation line had been drawn and 'put in place' between policy issues to be dealt with by Brussels and national governments.

Last night, it emerged that Mr Major would be happy with a general declaration of intent on that demarcation, or 'subsidiarity', issue, from the 16 October EC summit in Birmingham, with the detail left for subsequent negotiation.

The Prime Minister's office said the summit could not be expected to 'clobber together' such detail - including the possible repeal of some existing EC directives.

Mr Major told the BBC there was now a good chance of getting a summit declaration 'that will address many of the concerns that people have across Europe'. He also said that after his meeting in London on Wednesday night with Poul Schluter, the Danish Prime Minister, the Danes' position was much clearer. 'So I think in the light of that, after the Birmingham summit, if it proves to be successful, we will then have a further debate on Maastricht.'

A debate on the principle of the treaty, a direct challenge to Tory backbench dissidents, would take place soon after Parliament reassembled on 19 October. That would be followed by a reintroduction of the Maastricht legislation for its detailed, line-by-line committee stage - 'either before Christmas, or immediately after'.

But the Prime Minister added it was his intention to get the ratification Bill on to the Statute Book within 12 months at the latest. The force of that commitment was underscored by the Prime Minister's office, with a veritable battery of arguments for enactment: Mr Major had sought and got Cabinet and parliamentary backing for his negotiating stance at Maastricht; the British package excluded the social chapter and a single currency commitment; and it had been endorsed by the electorate in the April election.

More than that, however, Mr Major believed Britain's credibility would be fatally damaged if, having wrung concessions from EC colleagues, he was forced to go back on his agreement.

Lord Tebbit, the former Cabinet minister, said yesterday: 'I deeply regret that the Maastricht Bill should be brought forward at all. I regret even more that the Prime Minister has given no guarantee that it will have been amended to meet the needs of Denmark, let alone the views of the majority of the British people.'

Tony Marlow, the Euro-sceptic Tory MP for Northampton North, said: 'Europe may wish to proceed with the Maastricht Bill, although there does seem considerable doubts about that, Britain does not. The Prime Minister would be well advised to take that into account.' Mr Major delivered an equally forceful commitment to his beleaguered Chancellor, telling BSkyB that Norman Lamont had handled last month's sterling crisis 'brilliantly', and dismissing suggestions that he should sack him.

But Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, recalled that the last Conservative Chancellor to have been praised as 'brilliant' had been Nigel Lawson, 'just before he went, under Mrs Thatcher'.

Asked if he was going to resign, Mr Lamont said: 'Of course I'm not.' It was said last night that he had been angered by reports that he had aligned himself with Tory opponents of Maastricht.

While the position on Maastricht was clarified, the ERM position remained vague. The Prime Minister's office said a number of EC currencies had been 'scarred' by market speculators. 'If something is broke, you have to fix it,' said one senior source.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, last night warned against remaining outside the ERM. Underlining Cabinet tensions, he said some European partners could go ahead with economic co-operation 'in a year or two' without Britain, if it remained outside.

He said: 'The Foreign Office cannot be in the lead on this matter . . . but those who in the excitement of the moment would turn their back on European monetary co-operation have to weigh the risks of combinations forming on the Continent, perhaps in a year or two.'

When will Lamont go? page 2

Labour conference, page 6

Maastricht reports, page 7

Leading article, letters, page 22

A banker's guilt;

Andrew Marr, page 23

Hamish McRae, page 25