Tory rebels feeling the heat: Forsyth puts pounds 14.5bn tag on Social Chapter as Speaker complicates debate with warning to court

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT yesterday stepped up pressure on Tory MPs ahead of tonight's touch-and-go Commons votes on the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty by putting an astonishing pounds 14.5bn price tag on the changes that would be threatened.

As Tory rebels were reported to be flaking away from the revolt, the arch- Thatcherite Michael Forsyth, Minister of State for Employment, stepped up the Maastricht propaganda war in earnest. He said in a planted Commons reply that training costs could rise by up to pounds 9bn, while working hours' restrictions could cost pounds 5.5bn.

The vague nature of his calculations, however, was indicated by Mr Forsyth's statement that he had used a 'plausible range of assumptions on current provision and take-up for training. He also said that the cost estimates were 'subject to margins of error' and should be regarded as 'illustrative'.

The Speaker had presented John Major and his opponents with another potential complication as she delivered a clear warning to the High Court not to infringe the rights of Parliament when it hears Lord Rees- Mogg's legal challenge to ratification of the treaty on Monday.

Betty Boothroyd fired a shot across the High Court's bows as she invoked the 1689 Bill of Rights which outlaws the questioning of parliamentary proceedings in any court.

Tony Benn, the Labour MP for Chesterfield, an arch-critic of the Maastricht treaty but a champion of MPs' rights who raised the question with Miss Boothroyd, said afterwards: 'I don't think the judges have the right to hear it.'

If the judges took a similar view and decided they had no jurisdiction to hear the case, or that they ought to adjourn it until all parliamentary proceedings had been completed, that could intensify difficulties for Mr Major in the event of tonight's vote going against him - and that upshot is a distinct possibility, despite signs of the revolt crumbling at the edges.

Postponement of the case plus a government defeat could step up pressure on the Prime Minister to resolve the crisis by presenting a fresh resolution for the House to debate next week. Mr Major would no longer have the option of delay.

That would open the possibility of two defeats in quick succession, further paring away his authority and his prospects for continuing as party leader and Prime Minister.

Under the terms of the legislation he has steered through the House, as amended by the opposition parties, the ratification process will remain in limbo until a Social Chapter resolution, for or against, has been passed.

At the very least, Miss Boothroyd has made it clear that she expects the court to tread carefully over the type of evidence it considers, despite a

recent House of Lords' legal ruling now allowing courts to assess the significance of words spoken in the Commons to help them to interpret statutes. Mr Major was far more occupied yesterday in last-minute efforts to ensure that the knife-edge vote does not go against him. He met several potential rebels, seeking to convince them that the vote concerns the Social Chapter, not the Maastricht Bill as a whole, which received Royal Assent and became an Act on Tuesday night.

There were chinks of light for the Prime Minister with the Ulster Unionists, who could spell defeat or victory, indicating that they were ready to negotiate and some Euro- rebels peeling away. James Cran, an unofficial rebel whip, was thought by colleagues to be among the latter. John Carlisle, an outspoken opponent, said on television that he thought the rebellion was failing.

Mr Major released a letter to Kevin McNamara, Labour's Northern Ireland spokesman, spotlighting the key issue of a successor to the Anglo-Irish agreement. But the Unionist MPs may prove difficult to persuade - and will keep their cards close to their chests to the last.

Triumph of 1689 and

Inside Parliament, page 8

Scotland's 1994 high road, page 24