Treaty Tightrope: Major's head on the Maastricht block: How the ratification votes tomorrow could add up to a triumph for the Prime Minister or precipitate his downfall

MUCH OF the Maastricht debate is double-Dutch to all but the most assiduous MPs, and hundreds of Tory MPs are still not certain how they are going to vote in the two Commons divisions tomorrow night; they will be at the disposal of their whips.

The votes are crucial for Mr Major because they could give him the statutory authority to ratify the Maastricht treaty - if Lord Rees-Mogg cannot persuade the courts that the Maastricht legislation is defective.

The votes are critical because, if he loses at every turn, Mr Major could lose his job as Prime Minister; it could be his neck on the block.

The root of the Government's current problem goes back to April, when, facing certain Commons defeat, the Foreign Secretary accepted a Labour amendment to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

That amendment, now Section 7 of the legislation, says: 'This Act shall come into force only when each House of Parliament has come to a Resolution on a motion tabled by a Minister of the Crown considering the question of adopting the Protocol on Social Policy.'

Reading backwards, because much of Maastricht debate is easier to understand that way, a motion on the adoption of the Social Chapter has to be passed by both Lords and Commons. If that does not happen, there is no resolution, the Act remains dormant, and the Prime Minister has not got the statutory authority to ratify.

Against that background, the Government has tabled the blandest possible motion for debate tomorrow night - that, 'This House, in compliance with the requirements of Section 7 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993, notes the policy of Her Majesty's Government on the adoption of the Protocol on Social Policy.'

The motion does not even say that the Government opposes the treaty's Social Chapter - which is why Mr Major negotiated his opt-out in the first place.

However, when the Commons votes, between 10pm and 11.30pm tomorrow, it will be faced first with a more controversial alternative; the Labour amendment, which purports to block ratification 'until such time as it has given notification to the European Community that it intends to adopt the agreement attached to the Protocol on Social Policy'.

Those who will vote for that amendment fall into two clear-cut groups. Labour and the Liberal Democrats support the Social Chapter and oppose the Government opt-out.

Tory rebels argue that Mr Major cannot possibly ratify a treaty with the Social Chapter embodied within it; one way to stop him ratifying is to inject a parliamentary demand that he cannot have one, the treaty, without the other, the Social Chapter.

The Government has a Commons majority of 18 over all other parties. If all other parties vote against the Government on the Labour amendment, it would take 10 of the 40-odd Tory rebels to vote against, for the Government to lose that first vote with an Opposition majority of one.

The House will then turn to the main motion as amended, a clear-cut pro-Social Chapter motion. At that point, Mr Major has two options - like the grand old Duke of York, he can either march his troops up the hill, or down again.

He can put his votes where his mouth is, and oppose the main motion. Voting against the Social Chapter at that point would unite his entire party, because the Tory rebels would also want to vote the motion down. By doing so, after all, they would rob the Government of the resolution required to kick the Act into life. That would block ratification, which is their sole purpose.

As for Mr Major, he would be cutting off his nose, ratification, to save his face, and try to get the motion through another day.

However, he could also decide upon a tactical retreat, and order his loyalist troops to abstain on the main motion. Given that Labour and the Liberal Democrats would certainly vote for it, because it embodies the Social Chapter, the motion would be carried by a massive majority.

Once the motion is carried, it becomes a Resolution, the Act comes into force and Mr Major can ratify. But in doing so on that basis, he would have to spurn the will of the Commons by ratifying the treaty he signed at Maastricht - with the Social Chapter opt-out - in direct defiance of a Commons majority.

Labour would react to that by tabling a motion of censure against the Government, next Tuesday. Ten Tory rebels could vote against the Prime Minister on that motion, and force his resignation, rather than allow him to blackmail them into endorsing an abhorrent ratification of the treaty. They loathe the treaty very much more than they love Mr Major. It is entirely possible, however, that Lady Fortune smiles on Mr Major tomorrow, and he wins a majority on both the Labour amendment and on the main motion. He could then ratify the treaty as soon as the Law Lords have blessed the process.

But if Lady Thatcher scowls, Mr Major would defeat the Labour amendment - and then lose the main motion, with Tory rebels concentrating their fire against the ratification resolution.

The Government would then be left with no choice but to return to the Commons again and again, until it carried some motion, any motion within the terms of Section 7, because without it, Mr Major could not ratify even if the Law Lords did eventually approve the legislative process.

Mr Major might decide to do that next week, after having bought off the votes of a rag-bag of Ulstermen and nationalists with assorted goodies from the Whitehall pork-barrel.

However, if he lost twice in a fortnight, even he might feel it time to give up, move over and make way for another party leader. Given that stark alternative, the Prime Minister could yet decide to stall further action until the autumn, making a virtue of the legal necessity created by Lord Rees- Mogg, and bring another motion back in October. At least, then, he would live to fight another day. And hope springs eternal.

Brian Appleyard, page 23

(Photograph omitted)