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.'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind"

News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
football

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album