Maastricht: Speaker faces pressure for opt-out vote: Almost 300 Opposition MPs join Tory rebels in signing amendments which could threaten the treaty legislation

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PRESSURE on Betty Boothroyd, Speaker of the Commons, to allow a vote on a potentially lethal amendment to the Maastricht treaty legislation increased dramatically at Westminster yesterday.

John Smith and 266 of Labour's 268 other MPs, Paddy Ashdown and three other minority party leaders, and 19 Tory rebels signed two almost identical amendments removing the Social Chapter opt-out from the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, along the lines of Committee Stage Amendment 27.

If Mrs Boothroyd allows a vote on the main all-party proposal - new Amendment 2 - as might be expected for something backed by the combined weight of the entire parliamentary Opposition, the Government could well be defeated on the second day of the Bill's Report Stage next Wednesday.

With a majority of only 20 votes, the Government faces defeat if 11 backbench rebels join with a united Opposition, and there are 26 hard-core Conservative rebels on the issue.

And with polling taking place in both the Newbury by-election and county council elections next Thursday, the threatened timing of defeat could not be more embarrassing.

Strength of feeling on the Social Chapter was shown yesterday not only by the rare massed display of names on the Commons Notices of Amendments, but by Labour whips' orders that no MP would be excused duty for Tuesday and Wednesday's Report Stage proceedings.

As for the Conservative rebels, Nicholas Winterton, MP for Macclesfield, told a Commons meeting of the London Swinton Circle last night that if the Prime Minister pressed ahead with Maastricht he could split the party and follow in the footsteps of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, bringing about his own 'political assassination' as party leader.

In a plea to the Prime Minister, Mr Winterton said: 'Please, heed the warnings before it is too late for party, for people, and for Parliament, to heal the harm which this Euro-lust is causing and will continue to cause for decades to come. Do not cut yourself off from the Tory grass roots and as a result head a party leadership which withers and is discarded'.

Yesterday's amendments revive the dispute over the legal advice proffered by the Government on Committee Stage Amendment 27, on which Michael Morris, the deputy Speaker, allowed debate and then refused a vote.

Initially, the Commons was told that if the amendment was passed, it would block ratification of the treaty. Then, faced with certain defeat, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, returned to the Commons to disclose that Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, had advised that, on the contrary, the amendment amounted to a double negative and that it would not stop ratification.

That advice is disputed by Labour and the Tory rebels, and Bill Cash, the leading sponsor of the Tory rebel's new Report Stage amendment, said yesterday that the possibility of seeking a judicial review of the impact of either amendment on ratification, if passed next week, was being given 'very, very profound consideration'.

(Photograph omitted)