Rebels given a way back: Major plays safe on Maastricht motion but gives Labour political headache

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The Prime Minister sought to leave nothing to chance yesterday as he attempted to stifle any remaining possibility of rebellion in next Wednesday's Commons vote on the Maastricht treaty.

A carefully crafted Commons motion gives Tory 'waverers' and Liberal Democrats the chance to bury their reservations and back him, while seeking to inflict maximum political damage on Labour.

Denounced by Labour and Euro-rebel alike as a 'highly defensive' move, the result of 24 hours of honing by business managers lasts for 141 words, most of them recounting past history but finally inviting: 'Her Majesty's Government to proceed with the (European Communities (Amendment)) Bill in order that the House should consider its provisions in further detail.'

Technically 'substantive' but anodyne, the word Maastricht is absent, in spite of promises of a robust motion on the merits.

As some former waverers pledged their loyalty, it was widely predicted at Westminster that it would do nothing other than consolidate Mr Major's highly effective rallying call to backbench MPs on Thursday night.

But while criticisms of the omission of the word Maastricht were dismissed as 'pedantic' by Sir Leon Brittan, an EC Commissioner, the motion's attempt to be all things to all men was attacked as 'timid and wimpish' and a damage-limitation exercise, prompting warnings that it could bring about abstentions rather than 'yes' votes from undecided soft rebels.

Some criticisms went beyond mere abuse. Bernard Jenkin, one of the new intake, who was still undecided, said: 'It looks like a bit of a fudge but it does still contain some controversial elements.'

The wording recalls the Bill's large majority on second reading, how the House was promised a debate prior to the Committee stage, and the Lisbon and Birmingham EC council commitments to the principle of subsidiarity and how to implement it, and declares that the Danish government's intentions have now been clarified.

It then 'recognises that the UK should play a leading role in the development of the European Community to achieve a free-market Europe open to accession by other European democracies, thereby promoting employment, prosperity and investment into the UK'.

A Labour amendment, to be published on Monday, will press for the Committee stage of the Bill to be delayed at least until the Edinburgh summit on 11 December.

Hard core Tory Euro-rebels appeared momentarily fazed by the motion, indicating that the painstaking word-polishing might have hit its target.

But while the hardliners will defer any tactical decision on the vote until early next week, equally there were renewed predictions that between 20 and 32 Tories will still rebel.

A Scottish National Party/Plaid Cymru amendment reads: 'This House has no confidence in the Government's handling of the Maastricht treaty.' Twelve of the 13 Northern Ireland MPs are also expected to vote against the Government.

The motion's prospects looked under threat at one point yesterday as delegates at the annual Scottish Liberal Democrats conference prepared to vote this morning for an emergency motion urging MPs to vote in the way best calculated to bring down the Government.

But Paddy Ashdown, the party leader, said in a statement last night: 'Following consultations with senior colleagues, I will be recommending to my parliamentary party when we next meet on Tuesday that we should vote for the Maastricht motion.'

If that stymies an incipient revolt, 19 of the 20 Liberal Democrat MPs will support the Government.

Predictions of an adequate, though far from overwhelming, victory were likely to have been underpinned yesterday by the parliamentary approval of Denmark's compromise to win approval of the treaty in a second referendum.

While Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, George Robertson, accepted yesterday that the Tory rebellion, like most others, could well fade, party managers pointed out that the arithmetic frantically being done by Government loyalists was being concentrated on rebels' views of the motion.

Its amendment could, however, appeal to some MPs as a way out of their agony. At face value it will be a calmly worded amendment on timing. But it can equally be used as a vehicle for lack of confidence, or outright opposition to any progress on the Bill.

Some of the Conservative rebels were acutely aware yesterday that Wednesday's vote might prove to be their 'last chance'.

If and when the Bill gets under way the opposition of pro-Europe Labour MPs could easily evaporate, prompting suggestions yesterday that a war of attrition in the Commons, with the object of killing the Bill on an amendment - one calling for a referendum, for example - or delaying its progress for months, might be the final upshot.

(Photograph omitted)