The Vote of Confidence: Major wins gamble on Social Chapter vote

JOHN MAJOR told the Commons yesterday he was not prepared to let the stalemate over European policy continue, as he bound his future as Prime Minister to the opt-out from the Social Chapter he negotiated 19 months ago at Maastricht.

Disputes over the treaty and EC policy could not be allowed to 'poison the political atmosphere' any longer, he said in moving the confidence motion. 'This boil must be lanced and it must be lanced today.'

The motion, carried by 339 votes to 299 as Tory rebels returned to the fold, declared the House had 'confidence in the policy of the Government on the adoption of the Protocol on Social Policy' - the agreement of EC states on the Social Chapter including Britain's opt-out. A Labour amendment that the treaty should not be ratified without a commitment to adopt the Social Chapter was rejected by 339 votes to 301.

Opening the debate, Mr Major said disputes over European policy had 'masked' the Government's achievements on education, asylum and housing and the fact that the economy was moving back into recovery.

He warned Tory Euro-critics that the issue of confidence extended to the Labour amendment. 'No MP should be under any misapprehension about that, even though its terms are intended to entrap the unwary.

'At the conclusion of this debate either the Government will have won the vote of confidence and can proceed with its policies, subject to one outstanding court case, or we will have lost and I will seek the dissolution of Parliament,' he said to Labour cheers.

Mr Major, in a lacklustre speech, interlarded quotes from businessmen and bankers with claims that the Social Chapter would cost jobs and reduce competitiveness. He said John Smith, the Labour leader, had the 'luxury of being able to strike attitudes'. The Government had to deal in realities.

'Mr Smith would not have to pay the price of his attitudes - the price would be paid by millions of men and women working hard to hold down jobs, bring up families and improve their working conditions.'

But Hugh Dykes, pro-European Conservative MP for Harrow East, said that so severe was the recession in other EC countries that no proposals had been put forward under the Social Chapter. Mr Major replied: 'Once we have adhered to the social protocol it is for good, not just for the brief period when our partners in Europe may be wary about bringing matters forward.'

In another intervention, Seamus Mallon, SDLP MP for Newry and Armagh, attacked whatever deal was done - none is admitted - to secure the nine votes of the avowedly anti-Maastricht Ulster Unionists. 'History will show that down through the years, sordid deals on the floor of this House have cost the lives of countless people in the north of Ireland.'

The Prime Minister had a duty to tell MPs what deal he did with the Ulster Unionists, Mr Mallon said, adding: 'The definition of an honest man is one who once he is bought, stays bought.' Mr Major told him: 'Nothing was asked for. Nothing was offered and nothing was given.'

He concluded: 'The matter could not have been left any longer. It has to be decided, and the only way to decide it is to reject the Social Chapter.'

(Photograph omitted)