Britain's European Crisis: Major's authority in question: If Britain accepts the compromise plan

IF THE Cabinet accepts the 'compromise' today, it will not alter the fact that John Major will emerge from the latest European dispute with his authority as Prime Minister and Conservative leader badly damaged and his party as split as ever.

The prospect of protest resignations from unhappy Cabinet right-wingers was being played down yesterday.

But the evident switch in tone has left a number of Tory backbenchers with less to lose, feeling they have been marched up the hill and back down again.

According to one MP, some colleagues had made 'no-surrender' constituency speeches last weekend, with the implication that they were prepared to vote against the autumn Bill to ratify the enlargement of the European Union. That could be a fruitless protest, as Labour plans to support it.

But that is far from saying that disenchanted backbenchers will henceforth keep their concerns to themselves, especially perhaps those who loyally trooped into the lobbies during the Maastricht Bill only to see, as one MP put it, 'power given away at the first opportunity'.

Twice yesterday, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, emphasised that qualified majority voting had a role - for example when it came to reforming the Common Agricultural Policy - while there were suggestions from some ministerial sources that backbenchers had not given him too hard a time.

But David Evans, a Major loyalist and a member of the backbench 1922 Committee executive, said: 'By giving in instead of standing firm, John Major will be more, not less, damaged in the eyes of the public and the party.'

Hard-line Tory anti-Europeans were equally adamant that the so-called 'root-and-branch' reform in 1996 will not be effective in unravelling a decision to stay with a qualified majority of 27, because that would require unanimity.

If Mr Major believes that will not be frequently thrown back in his face, from tomorrow onwards, he is probably travelling very hopefully indeed.

In the midst of the latest posturings over 'social' legislation, moreover, is yet another Maastricht opt-out ticking time bomb.

Labour resolved at its last conference to attempt to force the adoption of the Social Chapter at the next opportunity.

The likely occasion will be the Bill to enact the 'own resources' agreement, increasing Britain's EU contributions.

It is at that point, if not before, that the Tories' sub-clinical disease could again break out into raging fever.

There is one consolation for Mr Major, however, if the deal is done. Mr Hurd will not resign. On the contrary, he is keen to stay on this year and believes there is much to be achieved.