Paddy Ashdown has written to the Prime Minister saying that the new opinion reaches a wholly different conclusion from that given by the Law Officers before Douglas Hurd's Commons statement on Monday. The Law Officers concluded that the social protocol, which contains Britain's opt-out from the Social Chapter, need not be approved by Parliament.
The latest opinion, prepared for the Liberal Democrats by Anthony Lester QC, an EC law specialist, says section 6 of the 1978 European Assembly Elections Act makes clear that parliamentary approval is required for any treaty which extends the power of the European Parliament, as is the case with the Maastricht treaty and its protocols.
Mr Lester concludes that if Labour's amendment 27, to remove the Social Chapter opt-out, succeeds, the UK could not validly ratify the social protocol.
That in turn would mean that the protocol could not take effect without a further agreement by the other 11 EC member states - a highly embarrassing upshot for the Government.
But it would not affect the ratification of the treaty itself and its other protocols. That would be convenient for the Liberal Democrats and Labour, who want to explore every avenue to defeat the Government over the Social Chapter, but who would shrink from sabotaging implementation of the rest of the treaty.
Mr Ashdown told Mr Major: 'The Attorney General (Sir Nicholas Lyell QC). . . is not only the provider of legal advice to the Government when it is required. He is also constitutionally the source of objective legal advice to Parliament, which is entitled to know and evaluate not only his conclusions but the legal arguments by which he has reached them.'
Mr Ashdown demanded a point by point response to the opinion, together with the release of the Law Officers' advice to Mr Hurd last Thursday and that provided by Foreign Office lawyers last month.
Tristan Garel-Jones, Mr Hurd's deputy, spent three weeks promulgating the view, said to have been based on the Foreign Office advice, that passing amendment 27 would wreck Britain's ability to ratify the treaty. But in Monday's embarrassing U-turn, Mr Hurd said the Law Officers now advised that parliamentary approval of the protocol was only 'desirable', implying that voting for the amendment was a waste of time.
Tory rebels suspect that when the 'wrecking' scenario was judged to have failed, the Government resorted to solving a political problem by legal means. The extent to which they might support amendment 27 on the basis of the latest interpretation is unclear. But in the absence of a definitive court ruling, the uncertain battle of legal opinions leaves the Government at risk.
Last night, the Prime Minister refused a request by John Smith to publish the two conflicting pieces of legal advice that had been presented to the Commons by Mr Garel-Jones and Mr Hurd.Reuse content