JOHN MAJOR is facing a Cabinet split over what tactics to adopt if the Government is defeated on the Maastricht Treaty this month.
The divisions are increasing pressure on Mr Major to gamble on a referendum if Tory rebels unite behind a Labour amendment which seeks to force it to accept the Social Chapter.
The threat of a split emerged yesterday as a senior minister suggested that some pro-European Cabinet members would rather see Mr Major accept the chapter after a decisive vote in Parliament than abandon the treaty altogether. He said: 'Our own rebels should not assume that there is no risk that they will end up being held responsible for forcing the British government to adopt the Social Chapter.'
Any pressure within the Cabinet on Mr Major to adopt the chapter would cause the deep rift within the Government's upper echelons over Europe that he has deftly avoided since taking office in November 1990. Most ministers believe that Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, and probably Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, would resign rather than accept the Social Chapter precipitating as many as 15 more resignations at junior ministerial level.
There is no enthusiasm for the chapter from which Mr Major negotiated an opt-out at Maastricht, to near-unanimous acclaim from the Tory party even among strongly pro-European members of the Cabinet. But the senior source said that, faced with the unpalatable choice between the treaty including the chapter, and no treaty at all, he would argue for the former.
The ministerial warning will be greeted with scepticism by the Euro-rebels, partly because of the frequent statements of outright opposition to the chapter, not only from Mr Major himself but even Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary. The rebels are likely to see the warning as part of a whispering campaign designed to destabilise the Tory rebellion. Some senior ministers insist they are confident, first that the Labour amendment will not be passed because the Tory rebels are themselves split on the issue; and secondly that even if it is, the Government will be able to ratify the treaty, complete with chapter opt-out.
But defeat on the amendment which seeks a further debate and vote on the Social Chapter before the treaty is ratified would cause political shockwaves. If Mr Major fears that the Euro-rebels would line up with Labour in the second vote, he could be forced to consider a referendum, which he has never totally ruled out, and which the rebels want. With pro-Europeans. The Foreign Office has grave doubts about a referendum. And it would be high risk for Mr Major. But a yes vote would substantially strengthen Mr Major's position.
The minister's warning to the Tory rebels is in tune with the private views of several ministers who believe that the chapter is an irritant compared with the catastrophic effects on the British economy and its international reputation of ditching the treaty. One minister suggested last week that there would be a Commons majority in favour of endorsing the chapter rather than ditching the treaty.
The dilemma for government business managers is that to maintain hopes of persuading the Liberal Democrats to back the Government against the Labour amendment they have to show that they would rather lose the treaty than sign up to the Social Chapter.
To persuade the Tory rebels they have to maintain exactly the opposite stance.