Treaty 'timebomb' pressure grows: Tory loyalists put on war footing as whips prepare for tight vote on Maastricht after Easter recess

GOVERNMENT WHIPS put all ministers and backbenchers on a war footing yesterday for the day the Commons returns from its Easter break, 14 April, when a vote is expected on Labour's 'timebomb' new clause amendment to the Maastricht treaty legislation.

However, after their order that everybody would have to be at Westminster that day, it was learned last night that one of the 26 regular Conservative rebels was already being offered a dispensation to 'pair' off with a Labour MP in an attempt to dilute the anticipated Tory revolt.

The critical importance of the vote was emphasised by a Labour frontbencher, who said: 'This is going to require strong nerves. But if John Major is defeated on New Clause 75, and the subsequent motion on the Social Chapter, he will either have to sign up to the Social Chapter, walk away from the treaty, hold a referendum - or resign.'

Few MPs believe it would be possible for him to survive defeat. But another senior Opposition source said a new leader could stage a referendum: 'A referendum would be the new leader's equivalent of Mr Major's repudiation of poll tax.'

Meanwhile, recriminations over Labour tactics spread across the parties - uniting Tory opponents of Maastricht, the Liberal Democrats, Labour's ardent pro-Maastricht contingent, and diehard Labour opponents of the treaty such as Dennis Skinner, against the disappearance of Amendment 27, which would have deleted the Social Chapter opt-out from the Bill.

That had the guaranteed support of a majority of the House, but the Attorney General had advised that it would not block ratification. Labour therefore sought a more effective weapon to force the Government to face the straight choice of ratifying, or not ratifying, the treaty with the Social Chapter - which is where New Clause 75 came in.

But Michael Morris, the chairman of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill's Committee Stage, ruled on Tuesday that he was dropping Amendment 27 in favour of New Clause 75.

One strongly pro-EC Labour MP said yesterday that he might find it difficult to vote for the New Clause 75 follow-up motion if it meant killing the treaty. He also criticised George Robertson, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, for calling it the 'killer amendment', asking: 'Who's it killing?'

Mr Roberston said: 'Labour wants to have a specific vote to include the Social Chapter in the treaty. That's what our whole intention has been right from the beginning. What we have done is part of a careful strategy to put pressure on the Government to sign up to what everbody else has signed up to.'

That enhanced clarity of New Clause 75 will undoubtedly make it more difficult for Tory rebels to vote for it. But it might only require 11 to defeat the Government, if all Opposition MPs turn out to vote. Paddy Ashdown said yesterday: 'We're committed to vote for the Social Chapter in whatever guise it comes before us.'

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