THE PRIME MINISTER, badly injured in this week's Maastricht battles, began to bind the deep wounds of the Tory war over Europe last night after he had won a Commons confidence vote that could allow ratification of the treaty.
With the Tories' backbench guerrillas forced into sullen surrender by a confidence motion that threatened an election, doubts about John Major's ability to survive the year ran strong in Conservative and Opposition ranks.
John Smith, the Labour leader, told ITN's Channel 4 News: 'His credibility, his authority, and his standing have been gravely undermined by the fact that he had to force the threat of a general election, which his party would certainly lose, upon his own backbenchers.'
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: 'The Tory party, riven with a civil war, virulent with internal enmity, has voted for its own survival. Can a party so divided conduct the government of this country for very long?'
However, Mr Major insisted there was 'no disunity whatsoever in the Conservative Party' over other issues such as law and order. 'The Conservative Party is going off at the end of this session on a high note,' he added. 'This Bill is behind us; the economy is returning to growth. That is what we wish to see, and that is what we've got.'
The Prime Minister told BBC television: 'On the broad issues of policy, we are united. The sort of Europe that I want is not a federalist Europe, not a centralist Europe, it is a free-market Europe, a wider Europe. That is strongly supported right across the Conservative Party, with no dissent from any Conservative MP.'
The voters' reaction to that No 10 view of the world will be severely tested in Thursday's Christchurch by-election. The party rank and file could also threaten further unrest at October's party conference in Blackpool, if Tory popularity slumps still further in the polls.
Meanwhile, the remarkable confidence motion, tabled after Thursday's government defeat, dominated Westminster, with Tory rebels facing first blood-curdling threats and then love and affection from Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, winding up the Commons debate.
The psychological warfare began with a fighting speech from Mr Major, who warned that he was no longer prepared to let the political poison of Maastricht fester; the boil had to be lanced.
During three Cabinet sessions on Thursday, ministers had concluded that the ratification question had to be resolved before next week's summer break, and that they would rather resign en masse than allow Mr Major to be picked off by the rebels.
That was the decision that lay behind the Prime Minister's statement, that, if defeated yesterday, he would not only have sought a dissolution of Parliament from the Queen, but would have got one. 'If a government cannot carry its business, a dissolution of Parliament would undoubtedly be granted,' he told Tony Benn.
What Mr Major did not say was that it had been agreed that there was no one else who would offer his services as Conservative prime minister, and, as Mr Smith told the House in a rumbustuous performance, Labour would have welcomed an election in which it would have expected Tory annihilation.
Taunting the Prime Minister over his stance, Mr Smith said: 'His back is against the wall and he's been forced, in order to survive, to threaten his own party with electoral suicide.'
Winding up the debate, however, Mr Hurd changed the tone completely when he said that the Tories were facing a turning point at which the hatchet of old hostilities could be buried. In a most emollient performance, he spoke of the 'fierce tussle' that 'a stalwart group' had fought on the basis of 'their convinced interpretation of the Conservative tradition'.
He added: 'I have heartily disagreed with them, I have often wished them to go away, go to bed, get lost. But I don't doubt that their struggle, their arguments, will find a remembered place in the annals of parliamentary history.'
In a behind-the-scenes meeting with one of the rebel leaders, Mr Hurd even suggested that they should agree a consensual position for next year's European parliamentary elections. However, that conciliation jarred with the earlier threats of a withdrawal of the Conservative whip from any MPs who dared defy the Government in yesterday's votes.
Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, said in a BBC radio interview: 'Obviously, someone who decides not to support the Government . . . would face very serious consequences.' He did not speak of a withdrawal of the whip, but as a Conservative Central Office colleague said later: 'He didn't have to.'
Neither did the Government, any longer, have to rely completely on Tory votes. By constructing an agreement with the nine-strong Ulster Unionist Party, Mr Major appeared to have consolidated his position. Directly challenged on that agreement by Seamus Mallon, the Social Democratic and Labour MP, Mr Major told MPs: 'Nothing was asked, nothing was offered and nothing was given.'
His statement was greeted with open disbelief on the Opposition benches, and wry smiles behind him. Those Ulster votes later magnified the Government's natural overall majority of 18, and in the first division of the day, Mr Major defeated Labour's Social Chapter amendment by 339 to 301, a majority of 38.
On the main motion, which, under the terms of Section 7 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act will allow ratification of the treaty if Lord Rees-Mogg's legal challenge is rejected by the courts, the government majority rose to 40, with 339 for the its Social Chapter opt-out and 299 against.
The only Tory dissident appeared to be Rupert Allason, a persistent Maastricht abstainer, who was said to have taken a flight abroad and has been ordered to report to Richard Ryder, the government Chief Whip.
Sir Edward Heath last night warned the Prime Minister against 'appeasement' of the rebels. On BBC 2's Newsnight, the former prime minister called the Thatcherite 92 Group a 'nasty clique' and added: 'We are going to get the majority of the party organised to continue with the European policy which has been ours since Churchill's time, and we are going to see it through.'
The Ulster 'deal', page 2
Europe mystified, page 3
The Commons debate, page 4
Leading article, page 14
ERM turmoil, pages 8, 17
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