JOHN MAJOR staked all on last night's razor-edged Commons votes, warning all-party opponents that he would ignore the will of Parliament if they backed the Maastricht treaty's Social Chapter.
Attacking the threat posed by a Labour amendment in favour of the Social Chapter, the Prime Minister told the House: '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.'
In a debate that mixed nail-biting drama with the open wheeler-dealing required to buy off opponents' votes, two former rebels publicly recanted to the ringing cheers of loyalist colleagues.
Another two, however, intervened in Mr Major's speech to display their continued determination to vote against the Government, and Mr Major later spent 25 minutes with Richard Ryder, his Chief Whip, before calling a special evening Cabinet for a last-ditch briefing on the crisis.
In the Chamber, Mr Major took his defiance to the brink when he said that even if MPs passed an amended main motion - in favour of the Social Chapter - he would use that as the statutory authority for ratification of the treaty.
The gambit provoked angry condemnation of constitutional outrage from Opposition leaders and diehard Tory rebels.
John Smith warned that the Tories had gone far enough in bolstering the power of the central state. 'I warn the Prime Minister that if he takes it even further, and seeks to defy the will of the House, he will have exceeded the power of his office,' the Labour leader told MPs.
However, Mr Major was plainly gambling that his opponents would not react by pulling the rug entirely from underneath him - voting down the main resolution, to take note of the opt out - and leaving him without the authority to ratify at all.
With whips scurrying in and out of the Chamber with the latest intelligence on rebel numbers and tactics, ministers were advised that they were heading for defeat, and Mr Major dug his escape route in full view of the House. Explaining his planned course of action, the Prime Minister said the provisions of the Maastricht treaty had been incorporated in this week's European Communities (Amendment) Act, and he would not let it be frustrated by a 'cynical and unscrupulous' expression of parliamentary opinion.
In a direct appeal, he added: 'I hope that Members will reflect again on the cynicism of such a vote and on the damage it will do.' Trying to split off Maastricht from last night's Social Chapter votes, he argued: 'What Parliament is debating is whether we should negotiate a new treaty to add Britain to the social agreement.'
The Prime Minister's office said later, however, that Mr Major was not offering to open up such a negotiation; he was simply setting out the logical course of a Commons vote for the Social Chapter. The repeated thrust of Mr Major's argument was that if Britain wanted to stay in the EC mainstream, it had to ratify the treaty and could not stand on the sidelines throwing stones.
That was turned against the Prime Minister by Mr Smith and Paddy Ashdown. The Leader of the Opposition told the House the Government's Social Chapter opt-out was Britain's lock-out from EC decision making.
But it was an intervention by the Liberal Democrat leader that prompted the most acerbic exchanges, with Mr Major challenging the Liberal Democrats to continue their support for ratification to its logical conclusion with a vote for the main motion of the night. Mr Ashdown rejected that course of action, replying that his party would be voting for the Social Chapter.
Later, in an end-of-term appeal for party unity and solidarity to the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Mr Major indicated strong concern about the threat posed in next week's Christchurch by-election when he said: 'The Conservative Party has to put aside the days when we were able to leave the Liberals on one side.'
With few of the hard-core rebels present, he also said: 'It is the obligation of everyone in the room to ensure that the party gets its act together. Everybody should examine their own consciences on how best to restore that unity.'
He concluded: 'It is important to be seen to be united, in the interests of the party and the country.
'The party does not understand and does not like division. I hope that those in this room will take this opportunity to bring this period to an end.'