Inside Parliament: Tories avoid EU meltdown: Hurd defends negotiations - Opposition greets compromise claim with derision - Tebbit joins critics of Government in Lords

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Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday summed up the reaction to his report to the Commons on the Ioannina compromise on European Union voting rights as lurching from 'excessive praise' and back to 'excessive criticism'.

Conservative critics made plain their deep unease at the package but refrained from going nuclear before today's Cabinet decision.

Middle-ground Tories appeared acquiescent, while the ever-supportive David Howell, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, coined a non-rallying cry, hailing the product of last weekend's foreign ministers' meeting in northern Greece as 'a compromise worth fighting for'.

Detailing the offer - or ultimatum - drafted by the Greek presidency, Mr Hurd said it was a transitional arrangement pending a 'root-and-branch' review of the EU's system of qualified majority voting (QMV) at an inter-governmental conference in 1996.

Until then countries would be legally bound to work for agreement 'on the basis of a 23 minority' - ie a proposal could be blocked, as now, by the combined votes of one big state (like Britain) and two small ones.

But after 'a reasonable time' if no agreement was reached, then the block would require a minority of 27 votes - two big states and two small ones.

To hoots of derision, Mr Hurd said he could not 'prejudge' the view of the Cabinet. 'There are still matters which deeply concern us, particularly, I would say, in the social field.

'They don't concern Labour MPs because they seem careless of the effect on jobs of some of the measures proposed.'

Nor was Mr Hurd prepared to explicitly state his own view, though the tenor of his remarks was that it was only deal on offer which would ensure the entry to the EU of Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden next January.

Mr Hurd was responding to a private notice question put down by his Labour shadow, Jack Cunningham. Definitely at the 'excessive criticism' end of Mr Hurd's scale, Mr Cunningham said the House had 'rarely if ever heard such a squalid and dubious statement from the Foreign Secretary'.

It had always been the case that QMV would be considered in 1996. For Mr Hurd to claim concessions on that point was 'frankly not true', Mr Cunningham said. 'It would have been difficult to devise a sequence of events which did more damage to Britain's interests and reputation in Europe than the confused and contradictory behaviour of this Government over the last three weeks.'

More pertinent were the suspicions of some Tory backbenchers. Sir Ivan Lawrence, MP for Burton, asked if Mr Hurd was giving an assurance that Britain would be conceding no power or control over European legislation which it did not already have. He was not.

Sir Peter Tapsell, MP for East Lindsey and a hardened EU rebel, wanted to know how long was 'a reasonable time' before the 23 blocking minority to a proposal gave way to 27. But Mr Hurd said this was not defined. 'I resisted efforts by some delegations to define that in terms of two or three months because that seemed to me to be unnecessarily restrictive.'

There were plaudits too for Mr Hurd. He accepted that the voting change could assist with trade liberalisation and reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, but added modestly that because of concern over social issues 'congratulations are a bit premature'. None the less, what might have been on Mr Hurd's own expectation a 'difficult' occasion became 'rather a pleasure'. There was even what he called 'a little souvenir of happy times in the past' in a clash with Gerald Kaufman, Labour's former foreign affairs spokesman.

Mr Kaufman asked why so much fuss over an arrangement to last just two years. 'Since in 1996 the Government is liable to be in a minority of 15 to 1 rather than 11 to 1, is it not a fact that the humiliating antics Mr Hurd has been obliged to perform have nothing to do with European Union and everything to do with Conservative disunion?'

Disunity was certainly evident in the Lords where the Foreign Office minister, Baroness Chalker, rebuked the former Tory chairman, Lord Tebbit, for seeming to put agreement with opponents before party loyalty.

A fierce Europhobe, Lord Tebbit endorsed much of the criticism by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, leader of Liberal Democrat peers and a former EC president, who accused John Major of a 'desperate attempt to save his own skin'.

The Prime Minister, Lord Jenkins said, had presented 'that most pathetic of all spectacles, a weak man trying to behave like a strong man and, as a result, looking weaker'. Lady Chalker told peers: 'I rarely remember a time when there was so much opportunistic chunter from people who really do not understand the detail of this - and I speak for some within my own party too.' The chuntering is expected to get louder today when Mr Major faces MPs at Question Time and Mr Hurd could make another statement.

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