Maastricht: Hurd insists Bill is a 'central issue': Critics confront Foreign Secretary - Backbenchers dismayed by Major's stance

Click to follow
DOUGLAS HURD told a committee of MPs yesterday that the Maastricht treaty was a 'central part of the Government's programme', but he refused to speculate on whether a Commons defeat next week would provoke a general election.

The Foreign Secretary told the Commons select committee on European legislation that ratification of the treaty was 'not a luxury or side issue'.

He said: 'It is a central issue and so that is the position. I am not going to add to speculation on what might happen if the Government were defeated on this issue. That would add speculation to speculation but I think everyone is clear that it is a central part of the Government's programme and will be presented as such.'

Mr Hurd faced repeated attacks by Tory rebels on the committee, but he warned them that a failure to ratify the treaty would put British jobs at risk, put Britain at a 'serious disadvantage', and diminish our influence in Europe.

Tony Marlow, the Tory MP for Northampton N, accused John Major of 'a porky' - a lie - and the Government of a 'massive policy of misinformation' on the treaty. Bill Cash, the Tory MP for Stafford, another leading opponent of the treaty, said it had been undermined by Britain being forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism.

Mr Cash said it was an 'absolute disgrace' that information about the treaty had not been published by the Government. Hugh Dykes, a leading supporter, agreed. Mr Hurd said a pamphlet would be issued through schools and libraries next week.

But Mr Hurd said after the 'paving' debate on 4 November, the Government wanted to proceed with the Committee Stage of the Bill to ratify the treaty before Mr Major chaired the EC summit in Edinburgh in December.

'There are very strong arguments against this country wrecking or giving the impression of wrecking the treaty which we entered into in good faith, which 10 of our partners are clearly going to be in a position to ratify fairly soon and on which Denmark . . . has signified its intention to seek arrangements to hold a second referendum next year.

'In these circumstances, there would be serious disadvantage to this country and our influence in the Community and the world . . . if we wreck or appear to wreck the treaty. That impression would grow the longer the parliamentary consideration was delayed.'

Robert Hicks, the Tory MP for Cornwall South East, said it would be totally wrong for Mr Major to chair the summit in Edinburgh if Britain was seen to be dragging its feet in ratifying the treaty.

'I agree with the thrust of that,' Mr Hurd said. 'It isn't really a matter of pride. It is only a matter of integrity. It is a matter of the extent to which we are going to be able in the next few years to influence what happens in Europe . . .'