Debate poses threat to Social Chapter

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THE GOVERNMENT is facing a Commons defeat on the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty when both Houses of Parliament debate its possible adoption on 26 July, writes Anthony Bevins.

The scheduled timescale for the debate will put maximum pressure on Conservative backbench rebels to behave themselves if, as expected, the writ for the Christchurch by-election is moved this week for a 29 July poll. The debates would also follow an 'end-of-term' address to the 1922 Committee from John Major on 22 July, in which he would be expected to make a strong appeal for loyalty and unity.

However, with more than 40 Conservative MPs having rebelled against the Maastricht treaty, and with Labour and the Liberal Democrats backing the Social Chapter, the Government's 18-strong majority is extremely vulnerable - as it illustrated with repeated cave-ins during the committee stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, conceded the provision for a special Social Chapter debate, embodied in the Opposition's new clause 74, on 22 April. One leading dissident said last night that the Tory rebels were battle-hardened; they wanted a referendum and they would even vote for the Social Chapter if they believed that would force the Government to hold a referendum on the treaty.

While the Commons and Lords votes have to take place before the Government can proceed to ratification of the treaty, new clause 74 did not lay down that the treaty could not be ratified if the Government lost one or both votes in both Houses.