Tory rebels 'threaten reforms'

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The Independent Online
SENIOR Cabinet ministers yesterday reinforced John Major's urgent call for party unity with a stark warning that Tory Euro- rebels were jeopardising the Government's legislative programme - including a much trumpeted law and order package

As the Prime Minister urged Eurosceptic MPs to protect the Government's fragile majority, ministers expressed growing impatience that, after 14 solid days of Commons debate on Maastricht, plans for the present and next sessions of Parliament were in disarray.

One Cabinet minister said yesterday: 'This Parliament is really being wiped out by Maastricht.'

Measures on juvenile offenders, Sunday trading, New Age travellers, 'raves', City fraud and money laundering, and the security services are among those that have been or may be postponed by the blockage over Maastricht.

The warning came as the Government faced possible defeat tomorrow over an amendment which seeks to ensure that those chosen to sit on a European Committee of the Regions should be elected councillors. If the Labour amendment is backed by Tory rebels and wins a majority, and the Government refuses to accept it, a report stage would be needed, ensuring further delay. But ministers may give assurances to the opposition to avoid pressing the amendment to a vote.

The decision by ministers to highlight legislative delays underlines the increasingly urgent search for a strategy to ensure the Bill's completion by the summer.

Although Mr Major was unequivocal in warning the Conservative Central Council yesterday that, with a Commons majority of only 20, 'disunity is a luxury we cannot afford', he adopted a less confrontational tone than Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman and a series of Cabinet ministers in speeches on Friday.

The Prime Minister said he understood 'the instincts and the patriotic feelings' of many who had doubts about the treaty. He shared their 'pride in Britain's great past', but the fears of those who resisted the Government's European policy were mistaken.

If Britain failed to sign the treaty the 'enormous price' would include pounds 50bn in lost production over the next five years as investors seeking access to European markets turned away from Britain. 'To let slip these opportunities' would be 'the surest possible way to impoverish our country and damage our standing in the world - almost beyond repair,' Mr Major added.

The new Cabinet onslaught is partly directed at members of the 'soft core' of up to 45 Tory MPs who say they cannot guarantee support for government closure motions, which call a halt to debate on groups of amendments. The failure to secure closures is causing the worst delays.

Although senior party figures dismiss talk of withdrawing the whip from rebel MPs, they have deliberately used the Central Council - a gathering of constituency activists and senior officers - to get the new message across to the local parties that the rebels represent.