Ministers retreat over Maastricht Bill timetable

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THE GOVERNMENT retreated from a humiliating defeat over the Maastricht treaty last night when it backed down from a threat to keep MPs up all night discussing the Bill and force the debate through the weekend.

The Commons was packed for the 10pm vote to extend the Committee Stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill through the night. But a government whip called for the House to be adjourned without a vote. There were Labour shouts of 'frit' - Baroness Thatcher's term for 'frightened' - as MPs swarmed out of the chamber.

Jack Cunningham, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: 'Let us hear no more from John Major about Opposition parties delaying the Maastricht Bill.

'Having prepared not only his own Tory MPs but the whole of staff of the House of Commons for a sitting lasting into the weekend, he has now backed off at the first sign of difficulty.'

Government whips feared that they would be defeated by an alliance of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Tory rebels if they had tried to extend the sitting.

Earlier, Mr Major had ordered a Tory truce over Maastricht last night, putting the brake on a maverick party attempt to punish senior backbench rebels.

There had been speculation at Westminster that the climbdown had followed a personal appeal to the Prime Minister from Baroness Thatcher, but some government sources said it was part of John Major's decision to take a more conciliatory line.

The Government's prime target remains amendment 27, which would exclude the Social Chapter opt-out from the treaty legislation. Although the Attorney General has said that amendment 27 would not stop ratification, there is a strong suspicion that his view could be challenged in the courts.

A vote on that key amendment is not expected until after Easter, and Mr Major hopes to use the interval to 'seduce' enough of the rebels into voting against it.

But that kid-glove message had not been transmitted to the backbench loyalists, and before last night's regular weekly meeting of the backbench 1922 Committee, more than 80 MPs had signed a 'round robin' letter saying that members of the 1922 executive should resign if they persisted with their anti-Maastricht treaty revolt.

The loyalist targets were Sir George Gardiner, Sir Rhodes Boyson, and James Pawsey, elected members of the executive who have joined the 45-strong backbench revolt against the Maastricht legislation.

Jerry Hayes, one of the MPs who had signed the letter, told BBC television before the meeting: 'I suspect there's going to be a massive row. . . I'm afraid we're talking about people like Sir George Gardiner and others who've been consistently voting against the Government. We look to men of principle, like George Gardiner, to say, 'Well, really I ought to review my position'.'

However, Robert Hughes, a government whip, told the meeting that Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, had asked him to deliver a special request.

Those present said afterwards that the message was that, given the intense media interest, and the deeply held feelings and differences, he preferred them not to tear the party apart in the week before the Budget.

Sir Marcus Fox, the 1922 chairman, told the MPs the executive recommended that 'this matter be dropped'. The meeting broke within minutes, and some rebel leaders declared themselves satisfied with their 'fairly big victory'.

But tempers flared later as James Cran, the unofficial whip of the Tory rebels, was button-holed by three angry senior Tory MPs after rebels forced a division, but then pulled out to keep the Government guessing about their strength for later votes.