Politics: Europhile Tories stay away from treaty vote

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The Independent Online
Sir Edward Heath, the former prime minister, last night abstained from voting on a Government Bill to ratify the Amsterdam Treaty, in defiance of a three-line whip imposed on pro-European Tory MPs by William Hague. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, reports that a party for John Major helped to give him cover.

The "big three" - Sir Edward Heath, Michael Heseltine, and Kenneth Clarke, were all absent from the chamber yesterday at the start of the Commons debate on the bill to ratify the Amsterdam Treaty.

Mr Clarke was campaigning in the Winchester by-election. Sir Edward, who later abstained, had a pressing diary of engagements which avoided the former prime minister openly clashing with the leader of the Tory Party, William Hague, in the chamber over the opposition three-line whip to vote against the Treaty.

As the Bill began its second reading, Sir Edward was at his London home, contemplating his memoirs. At 6pm, he attended a presentation to John Major by the 1922 Committee of a silver salver and two glass decanters to mark his period of office.

As the voting was due to take place, Sir Edward was attending the launch at the Spanish Embassy in London of a chamber ensemble from the European youth orchestra, which he helped to create.

Some of the Euro-sceptic leaders of the Tory backbench committee who went to praise Mr Major also played a prominent part in his downfall. One Tory source said: "Perhaps the presentation should have been a poisoned chalice."

Mr Hague was having more success driving the pro-European MPs into line than Mr Major did with his Euro-sceptic "bastards". David Curry, who last week resigned from Mr Hague's Shadow Cabinet as agriculture spokesman over Mr Hague's hardening of policy against entry to a single currency, caused Labour laughter when he announced he was voting with the Tories against the Bill.

He said the Government had returned from Amsterdam with a "poor treaty - it fails its central task. It's not a wicked treaty. It just doesn't do the job. That's why with an absolutely clear conscience, I can vote against it tonight."

Quentin Davies, another pro-European Tory MP who was critical of the shadow Cabinet's decision to rule out entry to the single currency for 10 years, said he was voting against the Bill because it endorsed the social chapter.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, ridiculed the pro-European Tory MPs for sheltering behind this feature of the Bill, in order to avoid a split in their ranks. Mr Cook said the Government was signing up to the social chapter "with pride", because it extended to British people the rights enjoyed by the rest of Europe. "We are signing up to the social chapter not to be nice to the rest of Europe, but because we believe it to be in the interests of the British people."

But another staunch pro-European Tory, John Gummer, said if Labour wanted to prepare for entry to the single currency, it would have been better to keep Britain's opt out to preserve employment flexibility. Michael Howard, the shadow foreign secretary, said: "This treaty is a wrong turning for Britain. It is a wrong turning for Europe."

l The cross-party Commons select committee on the Treasury, chaired by pro-European Labour MP Giles Radice, announced last night it is to investigate the degree of readiness in Britain for entry to the single currency, and the Government's plans to encourage the preparations.