Parliament and Politics: Rebel Tories to campaign for EC referendum

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Indy Politics
CONSERVATIVE MPs opposing the Maastricht treaty are to back a grass-roots campaign for a referendum, it emerged yesterday, as John Smith, the favourite in the Labour leadership contest, admitted his party was also split on Europe.

The Tory campaign is said to be under way, with money for advertising available. Sir Teddy Taylor, the Southend MP, said that he had been approached by party workers and office-holders who planned to run one.

But the leadership's determination to ratify Maastricht was again reflected by Sir Norman Fowler, the chairman, telling party workers at the weekend that the treaty 'incorporates British ideas and helps fulfil British objectives of a decentralised Europe'. Abandoning it would be the most short- sighted act of foreign policy since Russia sold Alaska to the US.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, warned yesterday that the EC remained the economic powerhouse of Europe. 'If we stood aside we would find ourselves still affected by its decisions - decisions in which we would have no say,' he said.

Mr Smith said that Labour MPs, like the Conservatives, could not all be expected to vote the same way on Maastricht.

A rebel in 1972 when he voted to go into the EEC against the leadership's line, Mr Smith said on BBC Television's On the Record: 'It's just impossible to expect that, on an issue of this kind, they will all vote the same way. There has to be some respect for differing opinion. That respect was exhibited to me in the past. It will have to be exhibited by me to others. That's the view I take about the whole handling of this issue.'

The Labour shadow Chancellor did not entirely rule out a free vote by Labour on Maastricht - as opposed to the party's abstention on the Bill's second reading - saying: 'We have not considered that as a possibility at this stage.'

His comments came as Mr Smith refused to detail Labour's tactics on the treaty Bill, if and when it returns to the Commons.

It was far from clear that there would still be a treaty to ratify, he said, following Denmark's rejection: 'I am not at all clear the Community has got a strategy for dealing with the Danish result.'

A big change had occurred and Labour needed to see its effects before deciding how to handle the legislation, he said.

Colleagues of Mr Smith said that his comments were not 'a licence to rebel' for MPs opposed to Maastricht. But they did illustrate the difference between his style and Neil Kinnock's 'sign up or be forever damned' approach.

With Labour believing great uncertainty still surrounds Maastricht, there are also calculations that if Denmark is brought back on board, Labour MPs, not least through the trade unions, will face considerable external pressure not to vote against.

The European TUC and others are telling Labour MPs and unions that they still firmly back Maastricht for its Social Chapter.

Britain has opted out of that, but European socialist parties and unions want to see it implemented, requiring ratification from Britain.