Smith faces pressure over Maastricht

PRESSURE on John Smith for Labour to vote against the Third Reading of the Maastricht Bill grew yesterday, as the Parliamentary Labour Party met for the first time since the summer.

At the same time, it emerged that the Government, in the wake of its coal troubles, has postponed a paving debate on Maastricht that it planned for next Monday as a prelude to starting the Bill's committee stage.

Traditional Labour opponents of Maastricht received support at the MPs' meeting from others who argue that the party needs to be far tougher on the Government over the Bill. They believe its defeat could bring down the Government.

After Labour MPs in July forced the Shadow Cabinet to re- submit a paper on Maastricht tactics, yesterday's paper from John Smith and the Shadow Cabinet was merely 'noted'. Party officials argued that it had thus been approved. But one of Mr Smith's leading critics over Maastricht maintained it was 'very significant' that the leadership had not felt sufficiently confident of approval to risk a vote on it.

Labour will oppose 'any attempt' to guillotine the Bill and will oppose closure motions on groups of amendments. That effectively guarantees that the Government will not risk a guillotine, and ensures a long-drawn out fight if Maastricht opponents stick to their guns.

The meeting agreed Labour would decide whether to abstain or oppose on the Third Reading after the committee stage. Labour opposition and a big Tory backbench revolt could see the whole Bill lost then.

Opponents said they have been promised the decision on whether to oppose will not be taken solely by the Shadow Cabinet. The PLP will meet before abstension or opposition is decided on.

Abstension is the course Mr Smith favours, backed by a conference resolution last month declaring that Maastricht 'is the best agreement that can currently be achieved'.

Mr Smith's supporters maintained that those speaking for opposition yesterday ran only to those with known positions. But a pro-Maastricht Shadow Cabinet member acknowledged there was more support for them than in the summer, adding 'new members believe it is easier to bring a government down than in fact it is'.