The Maastricht Debate: Historic victory raises a tide of doubt: Parliamentary Reaction: The Prime Minister's decision to turn the issue into matter of confidence provokes mixed feelings among senior Conservatives

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Indy Politics
'NOT SINCE the closing stages of the 1976 Aircraft and Shipbuilding Bill has it been such a good night for Labour,' Brian Sedgemore, MP for Hackney South & Shoreditch, said. That involved a tie, with the Speaker backing the Government. Labour sang the Red Flag on that occasion.

Last night's euphoria was to intensify quickly with the Government's defeat on the main motion, but there were more mixed feelings over John Major's decision to turn the issue into a matter of confidence in the Government.

Kenneth Baker, the former Home Secretary, said: 'I don't believe the Conservative Party will vote for a general election.'

James Cran MP, a leading Euro- rebel, said he would vote with the Government because he had confidence in the Government. Stephen Milligan, a pro-European, said the country needed last night's vote like 'a hole in the head'. The only person who emerged with credit was the Prime Minister.

Lord Parkinson, a former Cabinet minister, claimed the Government had framed two very good questions. 'I think the Government will get the endorsement it needs.' He added that he could not imagine any Tory he knew voting against the Government today. But Lord Howe said the Government would have 'to pull out all the stops' if it is to stand 'a reasonable chance' of winning today's vote.

Others were not so confident. The rebels were 'playing with fire,' one said. 'The country elected us with Maastricht in the manifesto.'

One Tory immediately disclosed that he, for one, might not be voting the Government's way. Bill Cash MP, arch Euro-sceptic, said he voted against the Government on both amendments last night and he was uncertain how he would be voting today. 'If it was a straightforward confidence motion I would vote with the Government. But it is linked with the social protocol which has just been defeated in the House of Commons.' He therefore was 'uncertain' how to react today. Asked if he was ashamed and embarrassed about the confusion he and his band of rebels had caused, he replied: 'Certainly not'.

As one Tory decried Mr Cash and the other rebels as 'stupid bastards', Barry Porter, MP for Wirral South, said: 'They have nothing to be proud about. What has happened is that a very very small minority has overturned the will of the House.'

Insults flew during the heat of the vote, one Government supporter swore at Teresa Gorman, another arch rebel. 'Leave me alone,' she retorted. Another Tory loyalist said later: 'I hope she's bloody proud of herself.'

Other rebels are unlikely to forget the strong-arm tactics employed by Government whips. John Wilkinson, the MP for Ruislip Northwood, complained bitterly about the 'utterly monstrous' treatment of Bill Walker, MP for Tayside North, whom the Deputy Chief Whip attempted to pull out of the Opposition Lobby.

Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said: 'They have only survived today by doing some kind of deal with the Ulster Unionists.

'They didn't have the courage to tell the House, or the press, or the country what the nature of that was. If the Government loses it will be finished.'

No explicit deal with the Ulster Unionists was done, but David Trimble, the MP for Upper Bann, said: 'The Government has seen how much it needs our support. They will now be looking more sympathetically at our grievances.'

Ulster Unionists were quick to declare their intention to support the Government. 'Our party policy was to oppose Maastricht and I've checked the wording of the motion that will be before the House (today) and it makes no reference to the Maastricht agreement and since the nation does not want a general election the Ulster Unionist parliamentary team will be there 100 per cent and will vote for the Government on this occasion,' John Taylor, MP for Strangford.

For the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown accused the Government of being prepared to do deals to strengthen sectarian politics in Northern Ireland in order to deny British workers their rights. 'That is about as discreditable and as tawdry a deal as has been done in British politics for the last half century.'

'They should have seen this coming. We are now a deeply divided party,' said one Tory MP who had reluctantly voted with the Government.

A minister said: 'They have stared over the brink now. What this will do is teach them a lesson that if you are not a single party, you are not a government. It is necessary catharsis.'

'The only hope for the Government is that we go into the recess looking pretty awful. We have two months on holiday and we come back and try to put it all back together,' a backbencher said. 'I think once Major wins tomorrow, he will be all right.'

But at least two Cabinet ministers stayed back after the vote, discussing the other scenarios.