Inside Parliament: Jeers as Hurd retreats on Maastricht: Twists and turns of treaty debate are 'like situation comedy' - Scots MPs scorn 'Mickey Mouse' White Paper on the Union

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday likened the twists and turns of the Commons debate on the Maastricht treaty to 'a situation comedy which is running and running, episode by episode'. He doubted its popularity ratings were very good but tried his best to boost them with an entertaining performance of a man elegantly walking backwards.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk