Screws turned on Conservative treaty rebels: Anti-Maastricht MPs place hopes on amendment 443

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CONSERVATIVE screws were turned on the party's Maastricht treaty rebels last night after Labour's front bench had thrown its weight behind a potentially lethal new amendment on the Government's Social Chapter opt-out.

In a remarkable ambush staged at the regular weekly meeting of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee in the Commons, two former Cabinet ministers, Michael Jopling and Tom King, joined seven other MPs in attacking colleagues who had taken their revolt against Maastricht to the point of impeding the pace of progress on the legislation.

While stressing that MPs were entitled to oppose on issues of principle, the loyalists argued that obstructing government business was a different matter: 'That is not cricket,' one critic said later. The attack - exaggerated by some as a 'blood on the floor' exercise - singled out five members of the 1922 executive for special treatment, with a call for their resignation from their elected posts if they persisted with obstructive tactics.

The executive targets were Sir George Gardiner, Sir Rhodes Boyson, Sir Ivan Lawrence, James Pawsey and John Townend.

The increased pressure on the rebels came after Michael Morris, who is chairing the Committee Stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, had raised the hopes of the all-party coalition against the existing Maastricht treaty that he might yet allow debate and a vote on an amendment that could block ratification.

As the House has already debated amendments dealing with the Social Chapter opt-out protocol, any fresh amendments would in normal circumstances stand no chance of being debated, let alone being selected for vote. But in a significant ruling on Monday, Mr Morris, chairman of Ways and Means and effectively deputy Speaker, suggested that the Government's controversial U-turn on the legal consequences of amendment 27 had changed that situation.

He said: 'I am minded to take seriously the need for a further debate before the committee votes on that amendment (27).'

George Robertson, Labour's frontbench spokesman, asked yesterday whether there would be further debate, and whether amendment 443, tabled by Calum Macdonald, Labour MP for Western Isles, could be selected for debate and vote.

Although amendments 27 and 443 both propose deletion of the Social Protocol from the Bill, Mr Macdonald's amendment reaches a part of the legislation that could block ratification - Section 1(2) dealing with the powers of the European Parliament. That has to be enacted into UK law under the terms of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, and cannot be overridden in the same way as amendment 27.

In a considered reply to Mr Robertson's inquiry, Mr Morris left open the question of debate and special consideration of amendment 443. Ministers therefore face the real possibility of defeat, and opponents were last night hoping they might yet be allowed to challenge the Attorney General's ruling, of last Monday, that 'Parliament cannot pick and choose which treaty obligations to accept'.

Ministers would certainly have hoped for a ruling from Mr Morris that 443 was out of order. As it was, all sides lived to fight another day - if Mr Morris so chooses.

(Photograph omitted)