Ratification shapes up as a procedural marathon

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Indy Politics
The marathon debate to ratify the Maastricht treaty began after one hour and 23 minutes yesterday when Tory rebels gave way to allow the Committee Stage of the European Communities Amendment Bill to get under way, writes Colin Brown.

As the points of order continued, one Tory veteran left the chamber muttering: 'It's just like 21 years ago.' But compared to the 15 hours of delay in points of order on the 1972 European Communities Bill, it set off like a hare.

John Major was anxious to get the Committee Stage under way to prove to the European partners at the Edinburgh summit next week that Britain is not hiding behind the Danish referendum result - six months ago today - which threatened to shatter the treaty.

However, the Tory rebels are determined to slow the Committee Stage to tortoise pace. Unlike the Second Reading debate, which was limited to a final vote at 10pm, the Committee Stage is open-ended to allow MPs to pick at the detail of the legislation. The rebels have taken advantage of the procedure by tabling over 200 amendments. More have been tabled by anti-Maastricht Labour MPs.

The Government and the rebels are feeling their way at the moment. Neither side wishes to resort to closure motions - to force a vote to end a section of the debate - because they are unsure of their strength. Both are digging in for a war of attrition, which will run well into the new year. The Government's tactic is to wear down the rebels. Its ultimate deterrent is the 'guillotine', which would impose a strict timetable on debate. It would not get Labour's support for the guillotine without many more hours of debate, running through a weekend or two if necessary.

The rebels realise their strength lies in their stamina, but they have to guard against alienating their support by silly time- wasting tactics. In an effort to make the marathon orderly, all sides were called together by Michael Morris, the Tory MP chairing the Committee Stage, to agree the framework for debate.

The amendments have been grouped under subject headings. In order of debate, they are: industrial, consumer, commercial and market issues; networks such as transport and telecommunications; health and environment; culture; education and training; social fund; justice including frontiers, visas and asylum; indirect tax harmonisation (VAT); citizenship; cohesion - the committee of the regions, eco-social committee, European Investment Bank; development co-operation; Council of Ministers, Commission and Parliament; subsidiarity; Court of Justice; European Central Bank; economic policy and deficits; economic and monetary union; foreign and security policy; and internal finance.