Strains of the long drawn-out proceedings on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill have begun to show on both sides of the Commons. After six days of Committee Stage debate, MPs have dealt with six of at least 23 groups of amendments and new clauses tabled for consideration.
With the controversial subject of the Social Chapter looming on the long list of amendments, government whips feared that a full turn-out of Labour MPs combined with Tory critics could have voted down the motion enabling the House to sit beyond 10pm.
Rather than risk an embarrassing defeat, the Government did not move the motion. George Robertson, a Labour foreign affairs spokesman, said afterwards that ministers knew they would lose the vote. 'It was constructive opposition aimed at not debating the social dimension in the middle of the night.'
Labour MPs are due to debate tactics over the Bill today with the party's pro-Maastricht wing becoming increasingly exasperated at its stance. Even some Labour MPs who believe the party should vote against Third Reading are questioning the tactic of opposing government attempts to close debate on amendments. The issue arose briefly at last week's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting but is due a fuller airing today. One pro-Maastricht MP asked: 'Are we defeating the Government, embarrassing the Government, or frustrating the Government? The answer to all three is 'no'.'
Meanwhile, he added, the Government, by using two or three days a week to debate the Bill, was 'throwing a Maastricht blanket' over everything else, preventing debates on issues where Labour could score, such as privatisation. MPs pointed out that a Labour amendment to the Bill was taken at 4am - 'when no one is listening' - when it would be better to give the Government a reasonable run and concentrate on the Social Chapter and accountablility of the central bank, issues on which Labour disagrees with the Government.
By the time the fifth committee session ended at 7am yesterday, tempers on the Tory backbenchers, where the much of the debate takes place, had worn thin. When David Harris, MP for St Ives, protested that Bill Cash, a leading Euro-rebel, was not present, the equally anti-Maastricht Sir Teddy Taylor snapped back: 'Mr Cash has a cold and 'flu, and for Members to attack an Honourable Member for going home at two o'clock in the morning because he is sick, unwell and has lost his voice, is one of the most sickening examples of hypocrisy I have seen in 28 years.'
The sixth 'day' of the committee began only nine hours later with consideration of an article in the treaty about the 'flowering of cultures of member states'. MPs also debated provisions on a European dimension in education, with most of the this taken up with a two-hour speech by EC-critic Sir Richard Body, Conservative MP for Holland with Boston.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content