PM in new peril over Maastricht: Government wins Lords vote, but assault in Commons could threaten treaty and Major's future

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JOHN MAJOR'S Commons opponents moved last night to block ratification of the Maastricht treaty with a series of moves that threaten his future as Prime Minister.

Despite a broadside from Baroness Thatcher in the House of Lords last night, the Government secured a big majority to throw out a Tory rebels' attempt to gain a referendum on Maastricht. The voting was 445 to 176, a government majority of 269.

However, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Tory rebels in the Commons seized on fresh legal advice that could derail ratification.

Ministers have decided to rush forward to next Thursday the Commons and Lords votes on the Government's Social Chapter opt-out. Under the terms of the Maastricht Bill, each House has to endorse a Government motion on that opt-out before the law can take effect. The Commons Clerks - Parliament's in-house legal experts - have advised MPs that the treaty cannot be ratified until that endorsement has been given.

While Labour and the Liberal Democrats have consistently opposed Mr Major's Social Chapter opt-out, they have drawn the line at action that would jeopardise ratification.

Last night, however, John Smith decided to seize the political opportunity and go for the Government's jugular. Taking its lead from him, the Shadow Cabinet decided to impose a strict three-line whip against next week's government motion. The Labour leader will lead for the Opposition in the debate, forcing Mr Major into face-to- face Commons combat.

The stakes were so high that after Labour whips had seen Mr Major coming out of the Government Whips' office - a rare event - they spread the word that he had been doing a deal with Sir Russell Johnston and Archie Kirkwood, both Liberal Democrats.

Within minutes that was denied. A Liberal Democrat source said: 'We will carry on voting for the Social Chapter.' That meant that their 21 MPs would not only vote for a Labour amendment, pinning treaty ratification to approval of the Social Chapter, but that they would then vote against the Government's main motion.

Diehard rebel Tories already believe that they could help to carry Labour's Social Chapter amendment. Even if ministers managed to buy off Ulster's 13 Unionist MPs, it would take only 23 of the 40-strong Tory rebel band to beat the Government.

Lady Thatcher told the Lords she had had her fingers burnt over the Single European Act, and warned: 'Don't now go back to that same fire with a much bigger treaty with many more powers and get both your arms and perhaps your head burnt as well.'

Urging a referendum, she said: 'The people have been the big bulwark against overmighty rulers and the surest defence of the rights of individuals and their powers are at the heart of our nationhood.'

But next week's Commons vote poses the critical threat to the Government - and Mr Major. If the Prime Minister did not carry the Commons, and failed to ratify the treaty, his position would become untenable. However, his survival was not a matter of prime concern to a number of the Tory rebels, who said they were prepared to sacrifice him because they would, anyway, prefer a more charismatic and popular leader.

Because of the terms of Labour's New Clause 74 - the 'ticking timebomb' amendment accepted by the Foreign Secretary, last April - Mr Major has little room for manoeuvre. As it stands, the European Communities (Amendment) Bill says: 'This Act shall come into force only when each House of Parliament has come to a Resolution on a motion tabled by a Minister of the Crown considering the question of adopting the Protocol on Social Policy.'

It had been thought that those terms meant only that each House had to be given the opportunity to vote. The clerks of the House now argue that if the Government motion was defeated there would be no Resolution.

Mr Major told Tony Benn on

15 November 1991: 'Before the UK could ratify any treaty signed at Maastricht, its provisions would need to be incorporated into UK law.'