Major turns charm on Maastricht rebels

JOHN MAJOR led the Conservative Party into a new conciliatory approach towards backbench rebels on the Maastricht treaty yesterday, moving from threats to charm in the wake of Monday night's Commons defeat on the Bill.

But there was no question of extending the official truce to the dozen or so hard-core rebels, who are regarded as beyond redemption. One minister said in the presence of a rebel leader yesterday that they should be taken out and 'shot', torture was too good for them; that they had behaved 'dishonourably' in standing as Conservatives in last year's election; and that it was no coincidence that some of them had played a significant role in the 'betrayal' of Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

In sharp exchanges with John Smith during Prime Minister's Question Time in the Commons, Mr Major preferred to turn the heat on Labour for threatening further delay in ratification of the treaty.

Mr Smith, capitalising on Labour's successful amendment to the Maastricht legislation, forcing the Government to select the 24 UK members on the EC's new advisory Committee of the Regions from elected councillors, said: 'Is not the painful truth for the Prime Minister this: that far from being stabbed in the back . . . he shot himself in the foot?'

Mr Major said the Labour leader had repeatedly said one thing on Europe, and done another. 'In this country and in Europe, on this issue, no one will ever trust (him) again.'

However, he struck a distinctly friendly note in his replies to Sir Roger Moate, a Tory backbencher who did not vote with the Government on Monday night, and Sir George Gardiner, a member of the backbench 1922 Committee executive, who voted for the Labour amendment.

Sir Norman Fowler, the Conservative Party chairman, who said only last Friday that MPs could not choose from an a la carte menu of Tory policies, rejected, in a BBC television interview, the idea of deselecting the rebels as Tory candidates.

The Prime Minister's office said it was more important to win the Bill than to indulge in abuse, and a Foreign Office source said it had been decided to pick off the more amenable rebels in time for the vote on amendment 27, under which Mr Major's Social Chapter opt-out would be excluded from the Bill.

While ministers have said that amendment 27 would not block ratification, it would cause severe embarrassment. That vote is not expected until next month, and at least one other defeat is possible before then.

That could come on amendment 34, incorporating Commons approval for UK nominees to the EC Commission.