The Maastricht Debate: Major faces the ultimate challenge: Today's Commons motion: This House has confidence in the policy of the Government on the adoption of the protocol on social policy

JOHN MAJOR put his leadership on the line and pushed his party to breaking point last night after he had crashed to Commons defeat on Maastricht, stripping him of the immediate parliamentary authority to ratify the treaty.

The Prime Minister moved promptly to settle the issue by telling the House he would table an emergency confidence motion this morning, saying: 'This House has confidence in the policy of the Government on the adoption of the protocol on social policy.'

His mixing of the question of confidence with the terms required for Maastricht ratification made it difficult to believe that enough of the 23 Tory rebels who voted against ratification last night would have the nerve to put Mr Major to the test.

While some rebels said a further defeat would result in the resignation of Mr Major - and not the Government - others would not be willing to risk a Labour government, Maastricht and the Social Chapter that would certainly follow another election.

With Cabinet ministers roaming the corridors of the Commons to threaten a general election debacle for the Conservative Party, Mr Major initially beat off a Labour amendment in favour of the Social Chapter - on a 317-317 tie-break - and then lost his main government motion, blocking Maastricht ratification by 324 votes to 316, an Opposition majority of eight.

The wording of today's resolution would be enough, if passed, to give the Prime Minister the power to ratify the Maastricht treaty - the power that he was denied under the terms of Section 7 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act last night.

But John Smith, the Labour leader, told MPs that the House had tied and that the Prime Minister had been 'driven to use the confidence factor' in desperation.

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said later: 'This is a vote of no confidence in the Government, and a vote of no confidence in John Major's leadership.

'Liberal Democrats will continue to vote tomorrow and in the future to give Britain the best chance of incorporating the Social Chapter and against the Government's disastrous handling of this matter.'

With nine Ulster Unionists backing the Government last night, and again today, it would take only five Tory rebels to break ranks for the Government to win - even if Opposition parties hold their numbers.

Earlier, Mr Major had opened the debate with a different note of defiance - saying that he would ignore the House if it backed Labour's initial demand for Maastricht to be ratified with the Social Chapter from which the Prime Minister obtained the special United Kingdom opt-out.

That would have been too much for Mr Major to swallow, and he told MPs: 'It does not represent the true will of the House. It is an alliance of different parties, with different interests, voting for the same amendment for different purposes.' As it happened, he need not have worried.

In the debate, a mix of nail-biting drama and the open wheeler-dealing required to buy off opponents' votes, two former rebels publicly recanted to ringing cheers of loyalist colleagues. Another two, however, intervened in Mr Major's speech to display their continued determination to vote against the Government.

While the debate ploughed on, tense and hard-fought negotiations were taking place with the Ulster Unionist Party. In a direct leader-to- leader call between Mr Major and James Molyneaux, the Prime Minister succeeded in buying their votes with a commitment to 'accountable democracy' for the province.

However, when Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, reported to an emergency session of Cabinet in the House last night the numbers still did not stack up in the Government's favour.

With little more than a hour to go to the 10pm vote on the initial Labour amendment, Cabinet ministers were dispatched with lists of rebels to persuade, threaten and cajole back into line.

The word was that if the Government lost the votes, there would be an immediate motion of confidence in Her Majesty's Government.

The ministerial message was that if the rebels stuck to their guns, and the Government went down as a two-time loser on a confidence motion, Mr Major would go to the Palace and seek a dissolution of Parliament - bringing a second election in less than 18 months.

The threat's credibility was doubted by hard-core rebels.

They countered that Mr Major would be the only Tory in the land to want an election. 'He will be by himself,' one arch-opponent said. 'The Queen will laugh him out of court. We will elect a new leader, and Prime Minister.'

But it would be remarkable indeed if that sentiment - and nerve - survived until today.

Late last night, after the votes, the Cabinet went into its third session of the day to review tactics - and target rebels - for today's debate, starting at 9.30am.

The vote could take place either at 2.30pm or at 4pm - or later still if necessary.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Kim Sears is reported to have directed abuse at Berdych
tennis
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee