Opponents of the treaty were jubilant when they learnt that new clauses proposing the addition of a referendum to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill have been selected for debate.
Bill Cash, MP for Stafford and a leading critic of union, said: 'This is an historic day for the British people. The Maastricht treaty takes away from the people of Europe their democratic right to govern themselves, and a referendum in this country is essential to maintain those rights.'
Mr Cash said a poll had shown 75 per cent the public wanted a referendum on the treaty. 'They've had one in France, in Ireland and in Denmark, and the British people are demanding a referendum in this country.'
The referendum clauses will be debated at the very end of the committee stage. With more than 400 amendments and 55 new clauses tabled that will probably not be until Easter.
John Biffen, a former Conservative leader of the Commons and another critic, suggested the possibility of further delay because of the Tamilgate affair in Denmark which threatens the government of prime minister Poul Schluter.
Mr Biffen called, without response, for an assurance that if Mr Schluter resigned and the second Danish referendum was delayed, the Government would still not hold the Third Reading debate on the Bill until the Danes had voted. Mr Schluter is reported to want to hold the referendum as early as 27 April.
The Tory and Labour rebels are expected to lose any Commons votes on a referendum. George Robertson, a Labour foreign affairs spokesman, said a majority against a referendum would be 'the best thing for democracy'. One of the new clauses has been tabled by his former front-bench colleague Bryan Gould, the MP for Dagenham, who resigned from the Shadow Cabinet last year to campaign against the treaty.
John Major has set himself firmly against holding a referendum on the treaty while his predecessor, Baroness Thatcher, has been strident in demanding one.
Echoing Mr Major's view, Ian Taylor, Conservative MP for Esher, told the Commons: 'Many MPs believe it is the job of this House to make difficult decisions on a very complex Bill, and that is what the true definition of parliamentary scrutiny should be.'
One of the new clauses, tabled by Richard Shepherd, Conservative MP for Aldridge-Brownhills, states the treaty cannot be implemented until a referendum takes place. Another, tabled by Sir Teddy Taylor, Conservative MP for Southend East, states that within three months of the Bill getting Royal Assent MPs should vote on whether the legislation should be put to a referendum.
Both MPs will be speaking at rally in Trafalgar Square on Sunday organised by the Campaign for a British Referendum, a Tory- led pressure group.Reuse content