A substantive motion might split the party in the Commons by expressing support for the Maastricht treaty. But a bland motion to adjourn the House, while avoiding a split and possible government defeat, would open the Prime Minister to the charge that he was afraid of his back bench.
Five ministers are said by colleagues to have been against a substantive motion: Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security; Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment; Norman Lamont, Chancellor; Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment; and Michael Portillo, Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Ministers who wanted a substantive motion to face down the rebels included Kenneth Clarke, Home Secretary; Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade; David Hunt, Secretary of State for Wales; and Tristan Garel-Jones, the foreign minister who was standing in for Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary.
Some junior ministers went into the Commons for the normally routine session of business questions to hear the outcome from Tony Newton, the Leader of the Commons. He told MPs: 'I would expect it to be a substantive motion.' One minister said yesterday: 'I was flabbergasted when he said that.'
The battle continued yesterday. Mr Major wanted a substantive motion, to set out clearly the Government's position. It is a high-risk policy, because in being explicit, it could alienate more Tory MPs.
The safer option would be the bland adjournment motion, which would simply call for the adjournment of the House. That would enable the grievances to be aired, but would minimise the risk of defeat. Only the die-hards would vote against a motion offering no more offence than adjournment. A leading rebel said: 'Providing it was made clear that the division was not in any way an endorsement of the Maastricht treaty, I would vote with the Government on an adjournment motion.'
There are precedents for holding key debates on the adjournment to ensure maximum support in the Commons. Many of the debates during the Gulf war were on the adjournment to show the broad cross-party unity in the Commons for the conduct of the war. But this time, Mr Major is seeking to assert that authority over his own party.
He had promised the paving debate to spike the rebels' guns before attempting to revive the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, which ratifies the Maastricht treaty.
The Government won a comfortable majority on the second reading of the Bill at the end of a two-day debate on 21 May, with Labour abstaining and only 22 Tory rebels voting against.
However, before the committee stage could begin, the Danes rejected the treaty in their June referendum.
That strengthened the hand of the Tory rebels in Parliament, who argued that until the Danes had ratified, there was no point progressing with the Bill in the British Parliament. Ministers were forced into an embarrassing retreat and suspended progress.
Before attempting to restart the committee stage, enabling MPs to debate the Bill line by line on the floor of the House, Mr Major decided it was necessary to hold another debate, to defeat the rebels and regain his authority to force it through.
The Bill's opponents have already prepared hundreds of amendments to block its progress if the committee stage is restarted. That will mean many sleepless nights for all MPs in the Commons, until it has completed all its stages. If it is revived, it will be a long, hard battle, which will be continued in the Lords, where Lady Thatcher and Lord Tebbit are waiting to ambush it, before it reaches the Statute Book.Reuse content