In securing the end to a conflict which had threatened to block enlargement of the EU, the Prime Minister was widely acknowledged in Westminster to have paid a heavy price in political credibility on the right and left of the party.
The Cabinet swung behind the package negotiated by Douglas Hurd after a
90-minute debate in which four dissident ministers - including Michael Howard, the Home Secretary - suggested vainly that further attempts should be made to secure improvements.
In the one moment of high drama during the Commons exchanges in which right-wing backbenchers bitterly attacked the compromise, Tory MPs looked aghast as Tony Marlow, the maverick anti-European MP for Northampton North, put at risk his official standing as a Conservative member by saying to Mr Major: 'Why don't you stand aside and make way
for somebody else who can provide the party and the country with direction and leadership?'
As the uproar provoked by the outburst subsided, Mr Major said that Mr Marlow's frequently expressed views on Europe showed he was 'in no sense' an objective observer. He added coldly: 'I remind you that it might be a useful novelty if from time to time you were prepared to support the government you were elected to
But while few MPs could muster good words for what Mr Hurd later called Mr Marlow's 'grotesque abuse', even senior loyalist backbenchers acknowledged fears that a leadership crisis after June's European elections - and a possible November challenge - was more likely after the events of the past fortnight than before.
One member of the Tory 1922 Committee's executive, while arguing strongly that a challenge would be highly damaging to the party's chances of winning the next election, admitted a number of middle-of-the-road MPs had been angered at the contrast between the compromise and Mr Major's strongly Eurosceptic tone in the Commons on Tuesday last week. And one ex-Cabinet minister predicted that 'virtually any' stalking horse contender in November would achieve a big vote.
Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, went on television to mount a robust defence of the deal, described in the Commons yesterday as a 'humiliating climbdown' by John Smith, the Labour leader. But even as he did so he was increasingly being talked up by some MPs as a potential alternative leader to Mr Major. Mr Heseltine insisted the deal was a 'commendable negotiating success' which had realised many British
Besides Mr Howard, the three ministers who called in Cabinet for further negotiations, possibly in a full-scale European summit, were Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales.
The main defence offered by fellow ministers for Mr Major's remarks on Tuesday last week was that they had helped to press Britain's European partners into the concessions won by Mr Hurd at the weekend as part of the deal raising the required blocking minority to 27 votes.
However, Mr Major's troubles were compounded yesterday by doubts cast in Brussels over the force of the extra overnight concessions secured from the European Commission, which the Cabinet was told would impose long-sought limits on the impact of social legislation on Britain. In his second intervention in the Cabinet meeting, Mr Redwood demanded more details of the concessions from Mr Hurd. Jacques Delors, on being asked if they had led to many changes, said: 'No, no. I simply clarified the programme of the Commission for the present year and also the interpretation of the social Protocol. That is all.'
However, Downing Street was adamant last night after further talks with the Commission that Brussels had reconfirmed its orginal understanding of what it maintains are highly important concessions.
Mr Major told the Commons they would prevent repetition of measures such as the 48-hour working week being brought in under majority voting and that a new works councils directive would not apply to British workplaces. Mr Major was also at pains to emphasise the importance of the agreement to a 'root and branch' review of all voting procedures in 1996 and to stress that enlargement of the EU had long been a key objective of British foreign policy.
Mr Marlow's call for Mr Major's resignation has few precedents. A more devastating parliamentary attack was made in May 1940 by Leo Amery, then a backbencher, against Neville Chamberlain. Quoting Cromwell, he said: 'You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.'
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