Faced with the prospect of a humiliating defeat by an alliance of opposition parties and Tory rebels over the Protocol on Social Policy attached to the Maastricht treaty, Mr Hurd opted for retreat.
Amendment 2 to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill was 'tiresome, undesirable but in practice irrelevant', he said above laughter and jeers. 'The Government is prepared to acquiesce in the amendment . . . rather than give its push-me, pull-you opponents the entirely, and we can see it through these cackles, synthetic victory which they crave.'
Tabled by Labour and backed by the Liberal Democrats, minor parties and Tory rebels, the amendment deletes reference in the Bill to the protocol covering the agreement of the other 11 EC states on the social chapter and John Major's celebrated 'opt-out'.
Mr Hurd said it would not achieve the contradictory purposes of its backers - either forcing acceptance of the social chapter or preventing ratification of the treaty - and he did not see why he should give them the satisfaction of inflicting a defeat on the Government.
Anticipating retreat, Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, wondered why, if the amendment was of so little consequence, the Government had spent weeks trying to avoid a vote. 'It would have saved many, many metres, perhaps thousands of metres of column inches in national newspapers and elsewhere who have been trying to pick over the entrails over exactly what the Government's objectives have been in all this.'
Labour's objective was to secure for British workers the minimum rights laid down by the social chapter, Mr Cunningham said. Last January ministers argued the amendment would make it impossible to ratify the treaty, but when Tory rebels spotted the potential in this and defeat loomed, Government law officers decided it would make no difference.
'In their various manoeuvres and meanderings through this long labyrinth of debate about the significance of our amendment, the Government has demonstrated a quite unique facility of being able to stick its head in the sand and still come up with egg on its face,' Mr Cunningham said.
Mr Hurd's outward insouciance over the amendment provoked Nick Budgen, Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, to recall the attack last March on rebels like himself by Cabinet ministers and the Tory party chairman, Sir Norman Fowler. Their claim that Tory MPs would be voting for the imposition of the social chapter was 'rather unfortunate', Mr Budgen said, but Mr Hurd could not recall 'the various phrases and the dates on which they were used'.
Another rebel, Sir Peter Tapsell, MP for Lindsey East, asked: 'What puzzles a great many laymen such as myself is . . . why if this protocol is apparently so unimportant it was described as being the main achievement of the Maastricht negotiation when the Prime Minister came back?' The Foreign Secretary replied: 'He has indeed shown himself as a layman.' The value of the opt- out was not affected.
Sir Russell Johnston, the Liberal Democrats' European affairs spokesman, rose after Mr Hurd with a wry 'Well, well, there we are . . .' He agreed the amendment would not affect ratification of the Bill but predicted the European Court would force the Government to renegotiate the protocol with the other 11 states.
Bryan Gould, who resigned from the Shadow Cabinet over its pro- Maastricht stance, said Labour should oppose the Bill at third reading in order to win concessions. The third reading will follow the Danish referendum on 18 May and then the Bill goes to the Lords. 'We have the opportunity, if we wish to stand up for Parliament on this issue. We can say that it is an outrage for a government to say in advance that it . . . will pay no attention whatsoever to the view of Parliament.'
MPs and anyone else who thinks the argument over the treaty on European union has gone on long enough should remember that Scottish members are still arguing over the union between England and Scotland nearly 300 years on.
At Question Time, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists scorned the timidity of the White Paper Scotland in the Union - a Partnership for Good. Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, was jeered when he said the response to his document, published in March, had been generally very favourable. Intended to head off calls for an Edinburgh parliament with a modest increase in powers for the Scottish Office and widening the debates of the Scottish Grand Committee of MPs, it was called a 'Mickey Mouse' document by Dennis Canavan, Labour MP for Falkirk West.
Alex Salmond, the SNP member for Banff and Buchan, said one of the key arguments in the White Paper was that Scotland's 'subordinate position' in the UK was to change. Had Mr Lang deployed that new relationship with regard to the oil tax changes in the Budget which would cost thousands of jobs in Scotland, 'or is he just, in Lord Boothby's term, the scullery maid of the Cabinet, attempting to clean up the mess which his political betters have left behind?'
'Only an honourable member with the inferiority complex of the honourable gentleman would regard Scotland's role as in any way subordinate,' Mr Lang snapped back. Scotland was 'a full partner in the union' and the White Paper reaffirmed that.
Pressing for a referendum on a Scottish parliament, George Galloway, Labour MP for Glasgow Hillhead, said the White Paper 'has been received in our country with all the joy that the paperback edition of Satanic Verses might have been had it arrived in downtown Tehran'. Gently deflating the much-travelled Arabist, Mr Lang replied: 'I perhaps don't get about as much as the honourable gentleman. I don't know what sells in downtown Tehran.'
Another traveller on the minds of MPs was Asil Nadir, the bankrupt founder of the Polly Peck business empire. Alastair Darling, a Labour Treasury spokesman, called for a ministerial statement on Mr Nadir's departure from the UK - jumping bail of pounds 3.5m to fly to his native Turkish Cyprus.
It was a matter of great importance - 'the ability of this country to prosecute serious fraud', Mr Darling said, but Labour backbenchers were keener on pointing up Mr Nadir's donations to the Conservative Party.
'All citizens are equal before the law and no one should have a privileged position because they have donated to the party in office, even if it's the sum of pounds 440,000,' said David Winnick, MP for Walsall North. 'A lot of money is owing to creditors and some of the money was donated to the Tory party without it actually being put on the company accounts.'
Mike Watson, the Labour MP for Glasgow Central, was the first to wonder if Mr Nadir, who was awaiting trial on charges of theft and false accounting, was under the supervision of the hapless Group 4 security firm. More likely Mr Nadir fled at the prospect of another episode of Douglas Hurd's Maastricht comedy.Reuse content