Inside Parliament: Time finally runs out on the Maastricht marathon: MPs desert Day 23 of debate - Major hails fall in jobless total - Smith faces taunts over PR - Army makes rod for its own back

Click to follow
Secure in the knowledge that the marathon Committee Stage of the Maastricht treaty legisation was to be wrapped up without further votes, MPs decamped from the Palace of Westminster last night 'quicker than if they had heard the fire alarms'.

This rueful observation came from George Robertson, Labour's European affairs spokesman, as he addressed the 40 assorted Maastricht aficionados left in the Commons by 5pm. Mr Robertson was moving the new clause on the Social Chapter which he again described as 'a ticking bomb' beneath the Government's plans to ratify the treaty. But most MPs clearly had their minds on an entirely different clock.

The House has spent 23 days and nights on the committee stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill and the relief at its conclusion was evident on both sides of the chamber. Add to that the second successive monthly fall in unemployment and Tory backbenchers were ebullient. They were determined to do some cheering at Question Time.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, MP for Cirencester, duly obliged, prompting roars of support as he asked the Prime Minister if he would welcome the unemployment figures. Lines not too well polished, he went on: 'Down for the second month running, coming on top of a reduction of 1.5 per cent in. . . an increase of 1.5 per cent in manufacturing output, 2 per cent in retail sales figures. Isn't this proof that the economy is growing in confidence and isn't it about time the Opposition stopped prophesying gloom and doom about the economy?'

John Major said it was very good news for everyone. There were signs of growing business and consumer confidence and he hoped that would bring further good news on jobs.

Mr Major's backbenchers took their cue and howled at John Smith to respond. 'While welcoming the fall in the official unemployment total today, isn't it the case that a total of over 2,900,000 is still far too high and should never have been allowed to reach anything like this level,' the Labour leader said.

'If the Prime Minister seeks to take credit for a fall of 26,000 in the official figures, is he equally prepared to accept responsibility for the 1 million people who have lost their jobs since he became Prime Minister - the vast majority of whom are still unemployed?'

'Grudging might be the proper word for that welcome,' Mr Major replied. In the ensuing exchanges, Mr Smith moved to the balance of payments deficit, pointing out that it was forecast to deteriorate from pounds 12bn to pounds 17.5bn - a 'miserable prospect'. But Mr Major retorted: 'Every month Mr Smith used to ask me about inflation, until it fell. Then he started talking about unemployment until it began to level off and fall. Now he's changed horses again. I've bad news for the Right Honourable Gentleman - he's going to run out of things to whinge about.'

Not necessarily. Mr Smith is probably nursing a certain chagrin over Italy's referendum decision to move away from a proportional representation voting system just as his own party's Plant Commission has moved towards one.

Here was another stick with which to taunt Mr Smith. Cheryl Gillan, Conservative MP for Chesham and Amersham, asked the Prime Minister: 'Will he join me, 32 million Italians and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Margaret Beckett) in recommending the first past the post system to the Leader of the Opposition and the front bench?'

Mr Major agreed it was 'a divisive issue'. His opposition to PR was one of the few views he shared with Labour left wingers, he said, attracting a thumbs-up from Bolsover's Dennis Skinner. 'While others tried to dance on the head of a pin during the election, the Conservative Party campaigned four square for the existing system. It has brought us, over many decades, stable and secure government. I hope it will do the same for the Italians, and the Italians are right to scrap the backstairs deals that inevitably come with PR.'

This lofty sentiment was punctured when Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party rose to ask the next question. 'Backstairs deals]' shouted backbenchers well aware of the sweeteners that have been offered - notably to the SNP - to secure crucial votes on the Maastricht legislation.

Moving Labour's new clause 74 at the start of the committee's final session, Mr Robertson repeated that it was 'a ticking time bomb'. Accepted by the Government - thus avoiding a division - it means that after the Bill has received Royal Assent and before the treaty can be ratified a debate will have to be held and a vote taken on the Social Chapter opt-out.

Acceptance of the clause was a surrender, Mr Robertson said. 'It is an admission by the Government that they have no majority and no authority on this issue, that they faced defeat in the House of Commons and rather than face that defeat honourably they have simply said 'it doesn't matter'.'

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said it would be 'a great foolishness' for Britain to throw away the Social Chapter opt-out. 'We are not afraid of this argument and we have no difficulty, not in hoisting a white flag of surrender, but in accepting the challenge which the proposers of new clause 74 put upon us.'

The committee ended as much of it had gone on, with of points of order as Tristan Garel-Jones, the Foreign Office minister who piloted the Bill, and Mr Robertson paid tribute to the 'distinguished' chairmanship of deputy speaker Michael Morris.

Mr Robertson quoted Oscar Wilde: 'I have never much admired the courage of the lion tamer. After all, inside his cage he is at least safe from other men.' Outside the cage, he was sure Mr Morris would look on the proceedings 'with nostalgia, but I dare say little regret'.

MPs on the Commons Defence Committee were concerned not so much with ticking bombs as the detail of the British Army's SA-80 rifle. There are no problems with the precision weapon itself, but the same cannot be said of its cleaning rod.

The 'Mark Two pull-through' was 'insufficiently long for the barrel length'. A pretty basic error, Michael Colvin, the Tory from Romsey and Waterside, suggested. A new cleaning kit was 'still being trialled', said Major-General Tony Stone, Director- General of Land Fighting Systems for the MoD's Procurement Executive. 'Modifications are still being trialled?', exploded Mr Colvin. 'How do you 'trial' the length of a cleaning rod?'

Slowly, seems to be the answer. The decision to replace the rod was taken in 1991 and the new cleaning kits - one for each of the 307,000 rifles - would be issued by the end of 1994, the committee was told.

The rifle itself is spectacularly accurate and reliable, capable even of turning Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, Conservative MP for Perth and Kinross, into a marksman. The tartaned aesthete told the committee it was 'the most extraordinary weapon I've ever fired, because I hit everything I aimed at'.

(Photograph omitted)