Main parties split on treaty referendum call: Debate on Maastricht legislation enters final stages in the Commons

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THE COMMONS opened the final stages of its detailed consideration of the Maastricht treaty Bill last night with a debate on a backbench rebel call for a referendum.

Having resoundingly rejected Tony Benn's motion criticising the judgement of Michael Morris, Deputy Speaker, in not allowing a vote on Amendment 27 on the exclusion of the Social Chapter opt-out, the House began the referendum debate shortly before 7.30pm - with the prospect of a long night ahead.

Mr Benn's motion was defeated by 450 votes to 81, a 369-strong majority in support of Mr Morris.

Although the call for a referendum was also heading for Commons rejection, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were split on the issue; a point illustrated by the embarrassment shown when questions were raised about party attitudes yesterday.

A Labour spokesman said the party leadership had decided on an all-out three-line whip against a referendum, which meant that it would be a 'serious matter' if any frontbencher voted for the rebel backbench amendment, proposed by Bryan Gould, who resigned from the front bench last year to campaign against Maastricht.

But the most acute embarrassment was shown by the Liberal Democrats. At the end of Paddy Ashdown's weekly press conference at Westminster, the party leader and Sir Russell Johnston, the spokesman on Europe, were asked how they would vote.

Sir Russell, who will join Sir David Steel, the former Liberal leader, in voting against a referendum, said there was no party policy on the matter.

Mr Ashdown, who said he would vote for the proposition, added: 'It's the leader's view, it's not policy.'

Sir Russell said: 'I don't think any party has actually got a policy on referendums; it's not just us.'

In fact, the current Conservative policy is firmly against - the Tory leader is the embodiment of policy - although last night's debate was opened by Richard Shepherd, a confirmed Tory dissident, who called for the 'ascertainment of public opinion' urged in his own New Clause 46.

The final, 23rd day of committee stage proceedings on the Bill will take place tonight, when Labour will move its New Clause 74 on the Social Chapter opt-out.

The Government has already said it will accept that amendment, under which the Commons must be given an opportunity to vote on the Social Chapter - expected to take place after the Bill has become law, but before the treaty can be ratified.