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The Maastricht Debate: Kinnock savours a fine revenge amid Labour jubilation

LABOUR MPs punched the air and cheered as if they had already won the election that was threatened by the Government's defeat.

In the sea of excited faces by the Labour front bench, one was wreathed in a thin smile of satisfaction. Neil Kinnock had pushed his way to the front of the crowded chamber to hear the figures read out. It was small recompense for the defeat 15 months ago that had left him a broken leader of the Opposition. But it was enough.

John Major had been prepared for the defeat. He sat through the division with a buff-coloured folder on his lap. It contained the options he had discussed with colleagues at the emergency Cabinet a few hours before the vote.

When the first vote was announced, and the Government escaped defeat by the casting vote of the Speaker, he removed a page from the folder, neatly folded it and slipped it into an inside pocket.

But the second vote was always going to be more difficult. Tristan Garel-Jones, the former Foreign Office minister who had steered the Maastricht Bill through hours of debate, walked past the front bench and gave the thumbs-down.

Mr Major returned from voting and poured himself a glass of water. It was clear then that he was going to need the folder again. It contained the second option, the confidence motion. He read out the statement in a firm voice tinged with defiance. He appeared cool and confident, but some Cabinet colleagues could barely conceal their anger at the rebels.

Lord Lawson of Blaby, the former Chancellor, looked down on the scene like a chubby seraph. Tension had been mounting all night, as Cabinet ministers broke from their meeting and attempted to head off defeat by warning the rebels they were risking a general election.

As the rebels moved off for the first of the two votes, Labour MPs burst into applause.

At 10.16pm, the Chief Whip, Richard Ryder, returned, still not knowing how the vote would turn out. There was a ringing cheer from the Labour MPs when the first division result was read out, 317 to 317.

After Betty Boothroyd had rescued the Government by her casting vote, the whips began their work again. Five MPs crowded round Nicholas Winterton, pleading with him to vote with the Government. Derek Conway, a whip, finally persuaded him to do so, and he was pushed into the division lobby. With a smile of triumph, Mr Conway went in search of more rebels. But it was clear the Government would lose.

The Ulster Unionists again crossed the chamber and voted with the Government, but this time, it was not enough. There was an odd silence as the House waited, broken by one Labour MP who said to Mr Major in a stage whisper: 'You win some, you lose some.' The Prime Minister laughed at the joke.

Sydney Chapman, a government whip, pushed through the crowd and handed the figures to the clerks. They were read out in a rich Welsh accent by Ray Powell, a Labour whip: 'The ayes to the right 316, the noes to the left 324.'

Labour MPs waved their order papers and shouted 'resign'. It was a moment Mr Kinnock relished.