The Government in Crisis: Major chooses confrontation: PM retreats on election threat and opens drive to rally troops for EC vote

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR appeared to be heading for outright confrontation with diehard Conservative opponents of the Maastricht treaty legislation last night after he had backpedalled on threats of an election if defeated.

But there were signs that the cracks in the Tory party were beginning to open up in the Cabinet.

Having told the Commons that it would be 'folly' for the United Kingdom to isolate itself and lose influence in the EC, the Prime Minister decided to rally the troops with an unscheduled speech to tomorrow's regular weekly meeting of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee.

That meeting will take place after the Cabinet has agreed the terms of the make-or-break motion to be debated by the Commons next Wednesday, paving the way for the resumption of Commons examination of the Maastricht treaty legislation.

Mr Major wants to take the Bill back to the Commons before the EC summit in Edinburgh on 11 December. He has been persuaded that only by doing that can he win the agreement of fellow-EC leaders to firm procedures on subsidiarity, the demarcation between the responsibilities of Brussels and the 12 member states.

The retreat on the election threat came at a meeting between the Prime Minister and some Tory waverers. The impact of the Prime Minister's meeting, and parallel meetings between Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, and other potential rebels, appeared last night to be moving the balance of party opinion towards a Commons motion that will put the Government position clearly on the line next Wednesday.

But some Cabinet ministers were fighting a rearguard action for a bland technical motion, allowing the rebels, with whom they have created what government loyalists term 'an unholy alliance', to return to the fold.

Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, gave a rare public hint of the party's top-to-bottom split last night when he told Channel 4 News that Maastricht was 'certainly the last move that I will tolerate so far ahead as I can foresee'.

He also disputed what Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, said on Sunday: that the rebel tail was trying to wag the dog, a minority dictating what the majority of Tory MPs had to go along with. Mr Howard said: 'I don't think there's any truth in that . . . . These are people with legitimate concerns about the treaty. We have to persuade them that their concerns are misplaced.'

That ambivalence towards the rebels contrasted markedly with a Commons reply from Mr Major, and the defiantly aggressive view of some senior ministers, one of whom said: 'Even if it takes a hundred defeats, and a hundred votes of confidence, we will get Maastricht through. It will be a process of attrition.'

Mr Major told the House: 'Today, with the possibility of enlargement, through the changing policies in Europe, we have more of a chance than ever we had before of building a European community in the image that we in this country wish to see.

'It would be folly at this stage to throw that away by isolating ourselves in the Community, by ending our influence. That's the way that the sort of Community we don't wish to see comes about, not the sort of Community my colleagues and I have been fighting for for some years.'

Mr Major's view was bolstered last night by a concerted fightback by pro-Maastricht MPs. Ian Taylor, chairman of the Conservative Foreign and Commonwealth Council, said: 'It isn't the Prime Minister who is causing the destabilisation in the Tory party; it's a small group of rebels who are not prepared to support him whatever happens.' Hugh Dykes, an ardent pro-EC backbencher, said: 'The vast majority of moderate Tory MPs are beginning to get thoroughly sick and tired of a vociferous minority of eccentric right-wingers, still grieving over Thatcher's demise.'

Mr Major also opened up an attack yesterday against Labour's threatened decision to oppose the pre-Edinburgh consideration of the Maastricht legislation - and suspected Liberal Democrat wavering - when he told Paddy Ashdown that the 'manoeuvrings' of John Smith and the Liberal Democrat leader were undermining the case for Europe.

That attack on Mr Ashdown caused some perplexity in the Liberal Democrat camp, given their statements that they would back a resumption of the Maastricht legislation so long as the Government did not make it an issue of confidence.

Sir David Steel, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, said: 'The supposedly pro-Europe Labour Party are looking for a formula to enable them to vote against the Government.'

Major's crisis. . . . .2, 3

Leading article. . . . . .20

Two-party illusion. . .21

(Photograph omitted)