Rebels force Major into EU corner

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Chief Political Correspondent

John Major will today warn that Britain may be prepared to go slow on new agreements with Europe after being confronted with an ominous show of strength in the Commons by his own Euro-sceptics.

In the most impressive demonstration of Euro-sceptic feeling since last year's leadership contest, 66 Tory backbenchers defied government wishes and supported a call for an end to the European Court of Justice's powers over British courts. The vote came in the midst of inconclusive talks yesterday between the Minister of Agriculture, Douglas Hogg and Franz Fischler, the European Commissioner, over an easing of the ban on exports of British beef. The row with the European Union over the beef ban and the continuing electoral threat posed by Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party appeared to have fuelled Tory support for yesterday's-albeit symbolic- vote.

The Prime Minister will use a keynote speech today to attack the continuing use of "backdoor" methods to pass social and employment legislation without Britain having the right to use its veto. His speech to the Institute of Directors may be seen as an attempt to restore some of the Government's credibility among its Euro-sceptic MPs after being forced to retreat in its war of words over the beef ban.

Adopting a Euro-sceptic tone, Mr Major will attack Britain's European partners for using health and safety legislation, over which Britain has no veto, to challenge Britain's opt-out on the social chapter, which he negotiated at Maastricht.

"If old agreements are to be broken, I cannot see how we can be expected to make new ones," he will tell the institute. It is intended as a clear warning that Britain will not agree to progress in the Inter-Governmental Conference, unless the European Commission stops bending the rules on issues such as a statutory 48-hour working week.

His criticism will target a sore point among many Tory MPs, and it will enable Mr Major to counter-attack Labour for being prepared to sign up to the social chapter.

Tony Blair exploited Tory humiliation over the ministerial climbdown on beef by accusing Mr Major at Prime Minister's Question Time of trying to appease the Tory Euro-sceptics by making threats of action, which could not be carried out. He said there was "confusion and incompetence" at the heart of the Government's policy on Europe.

Yesterday's vote on a backbench Bill was intended to show the Government there is growing support among Tory backbenchers for a commitment to renegotiate the Treaty of Rome. Ian Duncan-Smith, who introduced the Bill, said at least 30 ministerial aides backed the move, but were stopped from voting for it by pressure from Government whips.