Tory rebels set for early legal challenge over Maastricht: Hoots of derision greet Hurd's climb-down on Social Chapter amendment

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The Independent Online
AN EARLY High Court challenge to British ratification of the Maastricht treaty was threatened last night after Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, was forced to accept deletion of John Major's prized Social Chapter opt-out from the Government's legislation.

The abject surrender, after months of resolute resistance, was greeted with hoots of derisive laughter from the all-party Commons majority that would otherwise have defeated the Government on a Labour amendment.

Within minutes, Bill Cash, one of the leading Tory opponents of the treaty, said: 'Our legal advice is that proceedings can be brought at an early stage.'

Judicial review would be sought on the conflict between legislation that did not include the Social Protocol, and the Government's plans to ratify a treaty that did. If necessary, Mr Cash said, the Tory opponents would seek to take the issue, on appeal, to the House of Lords.

But the Government also faced a potential challenge in the European Court of Justice. John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB union, told Channel 4 News: 'We can take judicial review, if the Government declares that one particular group are outside the Social Chapter provision, or we can take a case on behalf of an individual worker who is denied a Social Chapter provision.'

The Prime Minister responded defiantly last night, saying that he would carry on regardless. 'If I'd wanted cheap, short-term popularity, if I'd wanted to don a John Bull vest and been cheered, no doubt, in odd meetings in Land's End to John O'Groats, I could have said, 'Away with the Treaty, we'll all do it differently'. But it isn't in our interest.'

In Whitehall, guidance was characteristically confused on the potential timing of any High Court plea to stall ratification. One source said judicial review could be sought after the third reading of the Bill had been completed later this month; another official source said that was doubtful and that it would have to await Royal Assent.

Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs agreed that whatever the timing of a challenge, the judiciary would shy away from constitutional interference in the parliamentary process - although the European Court would feel no such inhibition if it felt UK law was out of step with EC requirements.

Mr Hurd argued that the Tory rebels and Opposition parties could not win, because they would not block ratification or win imposition of the Social Chapter. But he brought the House down when he concluded that he would not give them the satisfaction of defeating the Government on an amendment that was 'tiresome, undesirable, but in practice irrelevant'.

Parliament, page 8

Leading article, page 25

Andrew Marr, page 27