Rebels threaten to vote Major out: Tories say they will support a censure motion to prevent ratification of Maastricht in defiance of the House

HARD-CORE Tory rebels warned last night that they might vote against John Major on a Commons censure motion - and force his resignation as Prime Minister - if he threatened to defy a Social Chapter defeat in the House on Thursday.

But the Government was given an ideal excuse for delay when Lord Rees-Mogg, a Maastricht critic, won the right to mount a High Court challenge in which he will argue that the treaty legislation is defective. It could take until September, or even October, to resolve that action if it went to the House of Lords. And the Government, if it lost the action, would be forced into protracted amendment of the legislation.

The Prime Minister's office repeated there was no question of Mr Major ratifying the treaty before the courts had reached a judgment.

Meanwhile, on the Westminster front, the war of nerves escalated between Government whips and Tory dissidents, against a background of growing Opposition confidence that the Government could lose this week's Maastricht votes.

With suspicion running rampant in the Commons, it was feared that Mr Major might react badly to defeat on Thursday and say that once the courts had cleared the way for ratification, he would sign up to the treaty, without the Social Chapter, in accordance with the letter of the legislation but in defiance of the will of the House.

The rebel hard core said if Mr Major tried to do that they would consider voting with the Opposition on a censure motion. The Independent quickly identified six MPs in that diehard category; it would take only ten to bring Mr Major down.

The rebels derided the suggestion that a government defeat on a censure motion would trigger a general election. They dismissed the idea that the Queen would grant a dissolution when the Conservative Party had an overall majority of 18, and there had been an election only last year.

One of the hard core said that while he would be willing to sacrifice Mr Major, if he had to, he would not risk an election: 'The treaty is more important than Mr Major, but it is not more important than the Conservative government.'

Another rebel said that while he felt great loyalty to Mr Major, he even more strongly opposed the treaty: 'I think he would be very unwise to make it an issue of confidence in himself.'

Mr Major was most careful not even to hint at that in a lengthy BBC television interview on Sunday.

As for Lord Rees-Mogg's legal challenge, the Government decided not to oppose his application for a full hearing, but said it would counter his arguments when the case came back to the High Court next Monday.

Lord Rees-Mogg says the Government has acted unconstitutionally by failing to give Parliament the chance to vote on some parts of the Maastricht agreement. Sydney Kentridge QC, for the Foreign Secretary, told the court the Government had agreed not bring the the treaty into force until the legal process was complete.

Leolin Price QC, for Lord Rees-Mogg, told Lord Justice Watkins and Mr Justice Auld that he would seek a prohibition order preventing ratification in what was 'perhaps the most important constitutional issue to be faced by the courts for 300 years'.

He said that the ratification process was 'legally and constitutionally flawed' because ministers had failed to consult Parliament over three aspects of the agreement signed at Maastricht 18 months ago. Lord Rees-Mogg, former editor of the Times and fierce critic of the Prime Minister, challenges the proposed use of the Royal Prerogative to ratify the transfer of foreign and defence policy powers to Brussels, the Social Chapter opt-out and provisions to increase the powers of the European Parliament. That attempt to 'bypass' Parliament was 'legally unsustainable', according to the peer's lawyers.

'I think we have a very strong case in law,' Lord Rees-Mogg said afterwards. 'If this were an ordinary case, our chances of success would be between 80 per cent and 90 per cent. But of course this is not an ordinary case; it is a highly important case involving the affairs of state and the courts must work within the framework of reality like everybody else.'

Leading article, page 17

Mark Lawson, page 18

Andrew Marr, page 19

(Photograph omitted)