Ministers facing lethal ambush on Maastricht

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT faces a legal ambush over the Maastricht legislation tomorrow when MPs will press for a debate on a new amendment that threatens to block ratification of the treaty.

Sir Nicholas Lyell QC, Attorney General, told the Commons on Monday that Labour's amendment 27 - deleting the treaty's social protocol from the European Communities (Amendment) Bill - would not prevent ratification. He argued that because the protocol embodied the UK's opt- out from the treaty's Social Chapter, its deletion was a 'double negative', it did not need to be incorporated in UK law, and ratification would not be impeded.

Sir Nicholas volunteered, however, that the treaty could not be ratified if the social protocol was deleted from a different part of the Bill - dealing with the powers of the European Parliament, Section 1(2) of the legislation.

However, an amendment doing just that had already been tabled that day by Calum Macdonald, Labour MP for Western Isles, and there were strong indications last night that it would be backed by the Labour leadership, Liberal Democrats, and Tory backbench opponents of the treaty - the same coalition threatening the Government with defeat on amendment 27.

A government defeat on amendment 424 would leave John Major with three options: not signing the treaty, accepting it with the Social Chapter, or buying off Tory rebels with a referendum on the treaty itself. Given the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for the treaty and his total antipathy to the Social Chapter, a referendum would be the only realistic option.

The Government's first test will come tomorrow when MPs ask Michael Morris, chairman of the committee examining the Bill, to allow another debate on the social protocol - opening up the possibility that amendment 424 could be selected for debate and voted on.

Mr Morris surprised ministers on Monday when he allowed a special debate on the Government's legal U-turn on amendment 27. Tomorrow he could be encouraged to defy the Government again after a revelation by the Attorney General about the chronology of his advice.

Sir Nicholas told MPs Douglas Hurd, Foreign Secretary, had asked for legal advice about the impact of amendment 27 on 25 January. The Attorney was not consulted until Tuesday 9 February, a fortnight later. He had replied the next evening, 'and the Foreign Secretary received the advice the following morning, Thursday 11 February'.

Mr Hurd did not make his Commons statement until Monday 15 February, when he told MPs he had only recently received the advice, 'and I have immediately communicated it to the House'.