Maastricht rebels find hope in about-turn

Click to follow
Indy Politics
THE PRIME Minister was challenged by John Smith last night to disclose the detail of Whitehall's conflicting legal advice on ratification of the Maastricht treaty after they had clashed in abusive Commons exchanges.

As MPs continued to digest the Government's about-turn on the consequences of a vote for amendment 27 on the treaty's Social Chapter protocol, the Labour leader condemned John Major's 'slippery manoeuvre' to by-pass Parliament; using sharp lawyers to counter the threat of Commons defeat.

Mr Major replied with an allusion to Mr Smith's previous experience at the Scottish Bar, saying: 'Sharp lawyers in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.'

But beneath the abuse, Mr Major's opponents turned their attention to the possibility that if Whitehall lawyers could be mistaken in their first guidance on the impact of amendment 27, they could be mistaken again.

The first piece of advice - given by Foreign Office lawyers - was used by Tristan Garel-Jones, the Foreign Office minister, to advise the Commons on 20 January that the treaty would be at risk if amendment 27 was carried.

The second piece of advice, provided by government law officers last Thursday, argued the contrary, that as the UK was not accepting the Social Chapter, the protocol did not impinge on domestic law and its defeat would not impede ratification. The treaty would survive a Government defeat on amendment 27.

But Sir Teddy Taylor, a leading Conservative opponent of the Bill, yesterday questioned that judgement in a letter to Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary. He asked him to identify the powers under which the UK would make financial contributions to the administration of the Social Chapter - if amendment 27 deleted the enabling provisions of the Bill.

Meanwhile, Lord Tebbit returned to the fray last night with an accusation that Mr Major and Mr Smith were vying with each other to push the country into a European super-state.

He told a meeting at Hammersmith town hall, in west London, that the Maastricht treaty provided for a common foreign policy that could bind all UK governments. 'The treaty is simply full of similar traps, and Government and Opposition fall over each other in trying to push Britain into them,' he said. Dennis Skinner, the Labour MP for Bolsover, made the same point in his own way at the height of his own leader's onslaught against the Government - urging him to lead Labour in a vote against the Bill's third and final reading in the Commons. That has been ruled out because of Labour's fundamental support for the treaty.

It emerged yesterday that Labour had considered months ago the interpretation put on its amendment by the Government on Monday, writes Patricia Wynn Davies.

But George Robertson, the party's spokesman on Europe, insisted: 'It didn't seem to be terribly credible then and it doesn't seem to be terribly credible now.' He said the amendment had been drafted to ensure that it did not go beyond the scope of the treaty Bill, and was the only means of allowing MPs to vote on the Social Chapter.