Treaty rebels attacked over 'war of attrition': Heseltine raises the stakes in struggle with Conservative opponents of Maastricht

CONSERVATIVE backbench rebels were accused by Michael Heseltine yesterday of waging 'a long war of attrition' over the Maastricht treaty.

With the Commons returning from its Easter break on Wednesday, ministers face a number of make-or-break votes on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill in the next month.

But the President of the Board of Trade raised the stakes yesterday when he said that John Major would be finished if he dropped the treaty, and it would be 'crazy' to throw away the advantage of the Social Chapter opt-out.

Mr Major's critics have already begun a whispering campaign against him, threatening a destabilising leadership contest when the new session of Parliament opens in November.

But Mr Heseltine told BBC radio's World this Weekend that if the Prime Minister deferred to the demands of the rebels and dumped the treaty, 'the effect upon the credibility of the man would be profound. I think he would believe that he had put his commitment, put his name, put his reputation, and with very great success achieved the concessions he did at Maastricht, and then would be seen to have backed away.

'He would believe, as I judge the man, that when he next spoke to his peers in Europe, they would all be looking at him, saying: 'Yes, this is the guy who signed up before, and ran away.' That is not the sort of prime minister we've got and that is not the sort of man I judge John Major to be.'

George Robertson, Labour's frontbench spokesman on Europe, said that he expected a vote on New Clause 75 - which could block ratification of the treaty with Mr Major's Social Chapter opt-out - within the next three weeks.

He said that if the Government was defeated, the Tory rebels believed Mr Major would not sign up to the Social Chapter, 'and would rather walk away from the treaty with all the implications that would have' . He went on: 'We believe that Mr Major could easily sign up to the Social Chapter, since all the other 11 governments believe it's quite sensible and practical to do so, and that he would do so rather than face the opprobrium of destroying the treaty for the whole 12 countries of the Community.'

James Cran, one of the Tory rebels' unofficial whips, said: 'If we find that there's a way, by voting for this, that, or the next amendment, which will kill the treaty, I think my colleagues and myself will be sorely tempted. We haven't come all this way, we haven't had the kitchen sink flung at us continuously, just to chicken out now.'

Mr Heseltine said: 'If somebody in the Conservative Party is saying that they're prepared to play games with the tactics, the risk of which is to bring back the Social Chapter, I find that extremely disquieting.'

He added: 'We're trying to bring this country through a very difficult recession. We're trying to seek British self-interest at the heart of Europe. We have a programme for a Parliament and we will not be blown off course. There may be some squalls, there have been a very rough series of patches in the last 12 months, but in my view there are now real signs that things are getting better.

'And I have no doubt whatsoever that the British people will respect the Prime Minister for the judgement that he's shown and the nerve that he's kept when they have to make a judgement about his performance.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor